The Prima Porta Augustus is often seen as the cover model (literally: Zanker (1980, 2001 print); Southern (2014, 2nd edition); Goldsworthy (2014)) of Augustus’ reign and all that it represents. The highly decorated statue was found 12km north of Rome in the Villa of Livia, Augustus’ wife. Current thought suggests that it was a marble copy of a bronze that was placed throughout the empire. In this blog post I want to examine the context of such a statue and to examine and analyse the iconography it features, with the aim of showing that this ideological collage is a central piece of evidence for tackling the Augustan Age.
A good place to begin is to understand the context of the statue, that it is a celebration of a settlement with Parthia. The issue of the frontier with Parthia was one of the recurring themes of Augustus’s reign. The two empires were evenly matched militarily, which is why Augustus consistently used diplomacy to his advantage (Rich (2003) 336). Learning from the mistakes of the past and not engaging with Parthia allowed him to claim victory after the return of the standards in 20 BC (Res Gestae, 29). By saying he had “compelled” them to return the standards, he changed the relationship that he and Parthians shared, rather than being equals in power and prestige, they became “suppliants” (Res Gestae, 32). Though in Roman thought, “the line between friends and subjects had long been conveniently blurred” (Rich (2003) 340). In essence the act of friendship with Rome meant the loss of some sovereignty, and therefore Augustus was able to celebrate it a victory for the empire, for Rome and most importantly himself.
As Josho Brouwers recently argued, when viewed from an archaeological perspective, this was an object that was used “as part of a social strategy” (see article here). And in this case the strategy was in cementing his own military reputation, which was “negligible, and without Agrippa he would probably never have reached the heights that he presently occupies” (Southern (2014) 213). The military cuirass and the triumphant orator pose are meant to show Rome’s military superiority whilst hinting at the diplomacy that made the victory possible (Southern (2014) 212; Goldsworthy (2014) 303). Furthermore, it is made abundantly clear which campaign it is referring to, since the relief carving on the cuirass portrays the handing over of the standards.
I will now discuss some of the pieces of iconography that feature on the statue and analyse them. The centre scene is the key piece of the message that Augustus wanted to get across; that of military and diplomatic victory. Zanker holds an interesting discussion about how the artist of this statue must have been under the strict supervision of Augustus and working from a set of requirements that were essential (1988. 98), this suggest much about how artists must have functioned under the new regime and how each piece of art has to be seen as imbued with a deep meaning.
The figure to the bottom of this scene is definitely worthy of comment. Some would assume that its position at the bottom would mean that it depicts Mother Earth, as a symbol of prosperity and the peace Rome brings. Similarities between this and the figure on one of the panels on the Ara Pacis, support this theory, as this figure is also seen as Mother Earth, and she too is suckling two infants. This is further evidence for a new language of imagery, a set of motifs and themes that are repeated throughout the period in order to reinforce Augustan ideology.
Some points about the statue itself indicate a lot about what Augustus is wishing to say with his statue. He is barefoot, and this seen as a sign of divinity, this is further reinforced by the cupid figure riding a dolphin, a reference to the goddess Venus, from whom the Julli claim descent. Zanker argues that due to his adoption of the title Augustus, ‘revered one’, these religious divine themes were linked to the youthful nature of the statue to create a persona. A persona that has left behind the struggles of the civil war and is now focused on Rome (Zanker (1988) 98). Levick argues that the statue is “grave and self-controlled” and this creates the persona of the Princeps as a figure of control and responsibility (2010; 257).
Due to the nuance and vast amount you can extrapolate from it, the Prima Porta Augustus is an essential piece of evidence for the study of Augustus and his policies. It reveals a man concerned with his image, both physical and beyond that to how histories will remember him. It gathers together many different aspects of Augustan policy and puts them together in one package, demonstrating the complexities of the period. Though it is a very useful case study for revision!
Res Gestae Divi Augusti, trans. P.A. Brunt and J.M. Moore Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Brouwers, J. 2018. Augustus of Prima Porta. From Ancient World Magazine, accessed 26/05/19.
Goldsworthy, A. 2014. Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson.
Levick, B. 2010. Augustus: Image and Substance. Harlow: Longman.
Rich, J.W. 2003. ‘Augustus, war and peace.’ In, The representation and perception of Roman imperial power: Proceedings of the Third Workshop of the International Network, Impact of Empire. Edited by L. de Blois et al, 329–357.
Southern, P. 2014 2nd Edition. Augustus. Abingdon: Routledge.
Zanker, P. 1988. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, trans. A. Shapiro. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press
Figure 1: Prima Porta Augustus (Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons)
Figure 2: Close up of the cuirass (edited), image by Saiko ( CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons)
Figure 3: Relief from the Ara Pacis (Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons)