AP®︎/College Art History
- Visualizing Imperial Rome
- Digging through time
- Pompeii: House of the Vettii
- Veristic Male Portrait
- Head of a Roman Patrician
- Augustus of Primaporta
- Augustus of Primaporta
- Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater)
- Imperial fora
- Forum and Markets of Trajan
- The Forum of Trajan
- Markets of Trajan
- Column of Trajan
- The Pantheon
- The Pantheon
- Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus
Augustus of Primaporta
By Julia Fischer
Nothing was more important to a Roman emperor than his image.
Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century C.E., marble, 2.03 meters high (Vatican Museums) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Augustus and the power of images
Today, politicians think very carefully about how they will be photographed. Think about all the campaign commercials and print ads we are bombarded with every election season. These images tell us a lot about the candidate, including what they stand for and what agendas they are promoting. Similarly, Roman art was closely intertwined with politics and propaganda. This is especially true with portraits of Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire; Augustus invoked the power of imagery to communicate his ideology.
Augustus of Primaporta
One of Augustus’ most famous portraits is the so-called Augustus of Primaporta of 20 B.C.E. (the sculpture gets its name from the town in Italy where it was found in 1863). At first glance this statue might appear to simply resemble a portrait of Augustus as an orator and general, but this sculpture also communicates a good deal about the emperor’s power and ideology. In fact, in this portrait Augustus shows himself as a great military victor and a staunch supporter of Roman religion. The statue also foretells the 200 year period of peace that Augustus initiated, called the Pax Romana.
Detail, Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century C.E., marble, 2.03 meters high (Vatican Museums) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Recalling the Golden Age of ancient Greece
In this marble freestanding sculpture, Augustus stands in a contrapposto pose (a relaxed pose where one leg bears weight). The emperor wears military regalia and his right arm is outstretched, demonstrating that the emperor is addressing his troops. We immediately sense the emperor’s power as the leader of the army and a military conqueror.
Doryphoros (Spear Bearer), Roman copy after an original by the Greek sculptor Polykleitos from c. 450–440 B.C.E., marble, 6'6" (Archaeological Museum, Naples) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Delving further into the composition of the Primaporta statue, a distinct resemblance to Polykleitos’ Doryphoros, a Classical Greek sculpture of the fifth century B.C.E., is apparent. Both have a similar contrapposto stance and both are idealized. That is to say that both Augustus and the Spear-Bearer are portrayed as youthful and flawless individuals: they are perfect. The Romans often modeled their art on Greek predecessors. This is significant because Augustus is essentially depicting himself with the perfect body of a Greek athlete: he is youthful and virile, despite the fact that he was middle-aged at the time of the sculpture’s commissioning. Furthermore, by modeling the Primaporta statue on such an iconic Greek sculpture created during the height of Athens’ influence and power, Augustus connects himself to the Golden Age of that previous civilization.
The cupid and dolphin
So far the message of the Augustus of Primaporta is clear: he is an excellent orator and military victor with the youthful and perfect body of a Greek athlete. Is that all there is to this sculpture? Definitely not! The sculpture contains even more symbolism. First, at Augustus’ right leg is cupid figure riding a dolphin.
Cupid on a dolphin (detail), Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century C.E., marble, 2.03 meters high (Vatican Museums) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The dolphin became a symbol of Augustus’ great naval victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, a conquest that made Augustus the sole ruler of the Empire. The cupid astride the dolphin sends another message too: that Augustus is descended from the gods. Cupid is the son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Julius Caesar, the adoptive father of Augustus, claimed to be descended from Venus and therefore Augustus also shared this connection to the gods.
Finally, Augustus is wearing a cuirass, or breastplate, that is covered with figures that communicate additional propagandistic messages. Scholars debate over the identification over each of these figures, but the basic meaning is clear: Augustus has the gods on his side, he is an international military victor, and he is the bringer of the Pax Romana, a peace that encompasses all the lands of the Roman Empire.
Detail of the breastplate, Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century C.E., marble, 2.03 meters high (Vatican Museums) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In the central zone of the cuirass are two figures, a Roman and a Parthian. On the right, the enemy Parthian returns military standards. This is a direct reference to an international diplomatic victory of Augustus in 20 B.C.E., when these standards were finally returned to Rome after a previous battle.
Detail of Sol and Caelus on the breastplate, Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century C.E., marble, 2.03 meters high (Vatican Museums) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Surrounding this central zone are gods and personifications. At the top are Sol and Caelus, the sun and sky gods respectively. On the sides of the breastplate are female personifications of countries conquered by Augustus. These gods and personifications refer to the Pax Romana. The message is that the sun is going to shine on all regions of the Roman Empire, bringing peace and prosperity to all citizens. And of course, Augustus is the one who is responsible for this abundance throughout the Empire.
Detail of Tellus on the breastplate, Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century C.E., marble, 2.03 meters high (Vatican Museums) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Beneath the female personifications are Apollo and Diana, two major deities in the Roman pantheon; clearly Augustus is favored by these important deities and their appearance here demonstrates that the emperor supports traditional Roman religion. At the very bottom of the cuirass is Tellus, the earth goddess, who cradles two babies and holds a cornucopia. Tellus is an additional allusion to the Pax Romana as she is a symbol of fertility with her healthy babies and overflowing horn of plenty.
Not simply a portrait
The Augustus of Primaporta is one of the ways that the ancients used art for propagandistic purposes. Overall, this statue is not simply a portrait of the emperor, it expresses Augustus’ connection to the past, his role as a military victor, his connection to the gods, and his role as the bringer of the Roman Peace.
D. E. E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).
John Pollini, From Republic to Empire: Rhetoric, Religion, and Power in the Visual Culture of Ancient Rome (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012).
Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990).
Essay by Julia Fischer
Want to join the conversation?
- Where were these sculptures located and who was intended to see them?(8 votes)
- If you enter "Augustus of Primaporta" in the search bar at the top of the article, you will find a Beth Harris/Steven Zucker video about this statue. According to the video, the statue was found in the villa of Livia, Primaporta. Livia was Augustus's wife. It is thought that the statue is a marble copy of bronze statues which were used to spread the emperor's likeness and attributes throughout the empire. As Chelsea Germany writes, these bronzes would have been used in a much more public environment: few in the empire would actually see the emperor in the flesh so the statues were reminders of his power and presence . They did not mention the use of these statues on grave site, but there is a section on Art History that covers many types of monuments that honored dead Roman emperors.(13 votes)
- I understand that 'the dolphin became a symbol of Augustus’ great naval victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra', but why is it a dolphin? Some background information on the origins of the dolphin as a symbol would be helpful.(5 votes)
- The dolphin from the Augustus of Primaporta stands in for Venus in her embodiment as a sea goddess, here with Cupid riding on her back and emphasizing the role she had in the Augustan victory at Actium. See, for instance: Brunilde S. Ridgway, "Dolphins and Dolphin-Riders." Archaeology 23 (1970): 86-95.(9 votes)
- We read, "At the very bottom of the cuirass is Tellus, the earth goddess, who cradles two babies and holds a cornucopia. Tellus is an additional allusion to the Pax Romana as she is a symbol of fertility with her healthy babies and overflowing horn of plenty."
I had a question as to where the "horn of plenty" or the "cornucopia" originated from? I understand the common view of it to mean "a good harvest" and "abundance" now, but how did this come to be? The hooked nature of the object and its symbolism...where do these images first appear in world history?(5 votes)
- Cornu actually means horn and copia plenty. Both of these words are latin roots I believe, but am not entirely sure.(7 votes)
- The pax romana is a period of peace right?(3 votes)
- Yes, pax is the Latin word for "peace". Romana indicates that it was a time period of peace for the citizens of the Roman Empire.(1 vote)
- I have heard many speculations about this statue’s creator. Is it clear who made it and why?(3 votes)
- I looked around and found nothing, only that the marble is likely a copy of the bronze, and that was made by a Greek.(2 votes)
- What year was this published?(2 votes)
- Why is Augustus pointing? Does this mean anything?(1 vote)
- Most modern scholars believe it is a sign of address, adlocutio, one that a general would give to the Roman army. You can also find an example of it on Trajan's column.(3 votes)
- In other sculptures of Augustus, he is depicted with a bowl in his hand. What is the significance of this?(2 votes)
- Ok so I thought Rome had a virtual non-existent navy yet it says Augustus "I have a baby attached to my leg" Caesar defeated Marc Anthony and Cleopatra in a naval battle. I'm confused did Rome have a navy at some point?(1 vote)
- Maybe you need to do some reading, to supplement your thinking. Here's a little bit of a larger article:
The Imperial navy after Augustus, aside from the occasional conflicts in civil wars, once again was primarily charged with the protection of shipping and deterring piracy. Rome maintained two large fleets, the Classis Praetoria Misenensis and the Classis Praetoria Ravennatis based in the Mediterranean, with smaller squadrons operating on the North Sea, Black Sea and along the major rivers running throughout the provinces. Misenum, built by Agrippa in 31 BC, was the main naval base of the Mediterranean, joined by Ravenna, Aleria on Corsica, and other temporary ports.
The military situations on the Rhine and the Danube necessitated the construction of several dedicated fleet installations for the provincial fleets, classis Germanica, Pannonia and Moesica, but most were attached to the existing forts of provincial legions. In the English Channel and the North Sea (Oceanus Britannicus and Oceanus Germanicus), the Classis Britannica was stationed at Portus Itius (Boulogne) in Gaul, and later also used the Saxon shore forts of Britannia as bases.
As Roman power waned in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, so went the Roman navy. In 429 AD, the Vandals embarked on ships from southern Gaul and landed in North Africa, where they established their own kingdom.
Within a couple of decades, the Roman Empire consisted of little more than the city of Rome itself and the original territories in Latium and Central Italy. The Vandals' powerful navy would aid the ushering in of the western empire's fall when their pirate king Gaiseric not only eliminated Roman shipping on the Mediterranean, but also invaded Rome itself.https://www.unrv.com/military/roman-navy.php(2 votes)
- When was this published?(1 vote)