Augustus of Prima Porta
Augustus of Prima Porta is a 2.04m high marble statue of Augustus Caesar
Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...

 which was discovered on April 20, 1863, in the Villa of Livia
Villa of Livia
The villa of Livia was probably part of Livia Drusilla's dowry brought to the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was named and famous for its breed of white chickens and for its laurel grove , which were given auspiciously omened origins by Suetonius...

 at Prima Porta
Prima Porta
Prima Porta is a suburb of Rome located 12 kilometres north of its center along the Via Flaminia and just a kilometre outside of the Grande Raccordo Anulare highway. It is located on the right bank of the Tiber where the Via Tiberina leads away from the Via Flaminia and another road led off along...

, near Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

. Augustus Caesar's wife, Livia Drusilla, retired to the villa
Roman villa
A Roman villa is a villa that was built or lived in during the Roman republic and the Roman Empire. A villa was originally a Roman country house built for the upper class...

 after his death. The sculpture is now displayed in the Braccio Nuovo of the Vatican Museums
Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums , in Viale Vaticano in Rome, inside the Vatican City, are among the greatest museums in the world, since they display works from the immense collection built up by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the centuries, including some of the most renowned classical sculptures and...



The dating of the Prima Porta piece is widely contested. It is thought to be a marble copy of a possible bronze original. This original, along with other high honors, was devoted to Augustus by the Senate in 20 BC
20 BC
Year 20 BC was either a common year starting on Wednesday or Thursday or a leap year starting on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday of the Julian calendar and a common year starting on Tuesday of the Proleptic Julian calendar...

 and set up in a public place. Up until this time Augustus had lived modestly, but the fact that the statue was found in his wife's villa shows that he was thoroughly pleased with it.

It is also contested that this particular sculpture is a reworking in marble of a bronze original, possibly a gift from Tiberius Caesar to his mother Livia (since it was found in her villa Ad Gallinas Albas in the vicinity of the ninth marker of the via Flaminia, and close to a late Imperial gate called Prima Porta) after Augustus' death and in honor of the woman who had campaigned so long for him to become the next Caesar. This would explain the divine references to Augustus in the piece, notably his being barefoot, the standard representation of gods or heroes in classical iconography. Also, the relief
Relief is a sculptural technique. The term relief is from the Latin verb levo, to raise. To create a sculpture in relief is thus to give the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane...

s in the cuirass
Muscle cuirass
In classical antiquity, the muscle cuirass or heroic cuirass is a type of body armor cast to fit the wearer's torso and designed to mimic an idealized human physique. It first appears in late Archaic Greece and became widespread throughout the 5th– 4th centuries BC...

 depict the retrieval of Crassus
Marcus Licinius Crassus
Marcus Licinius Crassus was a Roman general and politician who commanded the right wing of Sulla's army at the Battle of the Colline Gate, suppressed the slave revolt led by Spartacus, provided political and financial support to Julius Caesar and entered into the political alliance known as the...

' standards
The vexillum was a flag-like object used in the Classical Era of the Roman Empire. The word is itself a diminutive for the Latin word, velum, sail, which confirms the historical evidence that vexilla were literally "little sails" i.e. flag-like standards...

 captured by the Parthians
Parthian Empire
The Parthian Empire , also known as the Arsacid Empire , was a major Iranian political and cultural power in ancient Persia...

, an event in which the young Tiberius himself took a part, serving as intermediary with the Parthian king, in the act that is shown in the central scene of the armor, possibly his grandest service to his adopted father Augustus. With the introduction of Tiberius as the figure responsible for the retrieval of the standards, he associates himself with Augustus, the emperor and the new god, as Augustus himself had done previously with Julius Caesar.
Under this hypothesis, the dating of the statue can be placed during the first years of Tiberius' reign as emperor (AD 14 — AD 37).


Augustus is shown in this role of "Imperator", the commander of the army, as thoracatus —or commander-in-chief of the Roman army (literally, thorax
A cuirass is a piece of armour, formed of a single or multiple pieces of metal or other rigid material, which covers the front of the torso...

-wearer) — meaning the statue should form part of a commemorative monument to his latest victories; he is in military clothing, carrying a consular baton
Baton (symbol)
The ceremonial baton is a short, thick stick, carried by select high-ranking military officers as a uniform article. The baton is distinguished from the swagger stick in being thicker and less functional . Unlike a staff of office, a baton is not rested on the ground...

 and raising his right hand in a rhetorical "adlocutio
In ancient Rome, an adlocutio was an address by a general to his massed army and a general salute from the army to their leader. It is often portrayed in sculpture, either simply as a single, life-size contraposto figure of the general with his arm outstretched , or a relief scene of the general...

" pose, addressing the troops. The bas-reliefs on his armored "cuirass
A cuirass is a piece of armour, formed of a single or multiple pieces of metal or other rigid material, which covers the front of the torso...

" have a complex allegorical and political agenda, alluding to diverse Roman deities, including Mars god of war
Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun in the Solar System. The planet is named after the Roman god of war, Mars. It is often described as the "Red Planet", as the iron oxide prevalent on its surface gives it a reddish appearance...

, as well as the personifications of the latest territories conquered by him: Hispania
Another theory holds that the name derives from Ezpanna, the Basque word for "border" or "edge", thus meaning the farthest area or place. Isidore of Sevilla considered Hispania derived from Hispalis....

, Gaul
Gaul was a region of Western Europe during the Iron Age and Roman era, encompassing present day France, Luxembourg and Belgium, most of Switzerland, the western part of Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the left bank of the Rhine. The Gauls were the speakers of...

, Germania
Germania was the Greek and Roman geographical term for the geographical regions inhabited by mainly by peoples considered to be Germani. It was most often used to refer especially to the east of the Rhine and north of the Danube...

, Parthia
Parthia is a region of north-eastern Iran, best known for having been the political and cultural base of the Arsacid dynasty, rulers of the Parthian Empire....

 (that had humiliated Crassus, and here appears in the act of returning the standards captured from his legions); at the top, the chariot of the Sun illuminates Augustus's deeds.

The statue is an idealized image of Augustus based on the fifth-century BC statue of the Spear Bearer or Doryphoros
The Doryphoros is one of the best known Greek sculptures of the classical era in Western Art and an early example of Greek classical contrapposto...

 by the sculptor Polykleitos
Polykleitos ; called the Elder, was a Greek sculptor in bronze of the fifth and the early 4th century BCE...

Compare the Orator in the Museo Archeologico
National Archaeological Museum (Florence)
The National Archaeological Museum of Florence is an archaeological museum in Florence, Italy...

 in Florence
Florence is the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany and of the province of Florence. It is the most populous city in Tuscany, with approximately 370,000 inhabitants, expanding to over 1.5 million in the metropolitan area....

. The Doryphoross contrapposto
Contrapposto is an Italian term that means counterpose. It is used in the visual arts to describe a human figure standing with most of its weight on one foot so that its shoulders and arms twist off-axis from the hips and legs. This gives the figure a more dynamic, or alternatively relaxed...

 stance, creating diagonals between tense and relaxed limbs, a feature typical of classical sculpture, is adapted here. The misidentification of the Doryphoros in the Roman period as representing the warrior Achilles
In Greek mythology, Achilles was a Greek hero of the Trojan War, the central character and the greatest warrior of Homer's Iliad.Plato named Achilles the handsomest of the heroes assembled against Troy....

 made the model all the more appropriate for this image. Despite the Republican influence in the portrait head, the overall style is closer to Hellenistic idealisation than to the realism of Roman portraiture.

Despite the accuracy with which Augustus' features are depicted (with his sombre look and characteristic fringe), the distant and tranquil expression of his face has been idealized, as have the conventional contrapposto, the anatomical proportions and the deep drape paludamentum
In Republican and Imperial Rome, the paludamentum was a cloak or cape fastened at one shoulder, worn by military commanders and by their troops. As supreme commander of the whole Roman army, Roman emperors were often portrayed wearing it in their statues and on their coinage...

 or "cloth of the commander". On the other hand, Augustus's barefootedness and the inclusion of Cupid
In Roman mythology, Cupid is the god of desire, affection and erotic love. He is the son of the goddess Venus and the god Mars. His Greek counterpart is Eros...

 riding a dolphin as structural support for the statue reveals his supposed mythical ancestry to the goddess Venus (Cupid's mother) by way of his adopted father Julius Caesar. The clear Greek inspiration in style and symbol for official sculptural portraits, which under the Roman emperors became instruments of governmental propaganda is a central part of Augustian ideological campaign, a shift from the Roman Republican era iconography where old and wise features were seen as symbols of solemn character. Therefore the Primaporta statue marks a conscious reversal of iconography to the Greek classical and Hellenistic period in which youth and strength were valued as signs of leadership, emulating heroes and culminating in Alexander the Great himself. Such a statue's political function was very obvious - to show Rome that the emperor Augustus was an exceptional figure, comparable to the heroes worthy of being raised to divine status on Olympus, and the best man to govern Rome.


It is almost certain that the Augustus was originally painted
Polychrome is one of the terms used to describe the use of multiple colors in one entity. It has also been defined as "The practice of decorating architectural elements, sculpture, etc., in a variety of colors." Polychromatic light is composed of a number of different wavelengths...

, but so few traces remain today (having been lost in the ground and having faded since discovery) that historians have had to fall back on old watercolors and new scientific investigations for evidence.

Vincenz Brinkmann of Munich researched the use of color on ancient sculpture in the 1980s using ultraviolet rays to find traces of color.

Today, the Vatican Museums
Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums , in Viale Vaticano in Rome, inside the Vatican City, are among the greatest museums in the world, since they display works from the immense collection built up by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the centuries, including some of the most renowned classical sculptures and...

 have produced a copy of the statue so as to paint it in the theorized original colours, as confirmed when the statue was cleaned in 1999 : it can be viewed here. However, an art historian of the University of St Andrews
University of St Andrews
The University of St Andrews, informally referred to as "St Andrews", is the oldest university in Scotland and the third oldest in the English-speaking world after Oxford and Cambridge. The university is situated in the town of St Andrews, Fife, on the east coast of Scotland. It was founded between...

 in Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

, Fabio Barry, has criticized this reconstitution as unsubtle and exaggerated.


The haircut is made up of divided, thick strands of hair, with a strand directly over the middle of Augustus's forehead framed by other strands over it. From the left two strands stray onto the forehead, and from the right three strands, a hairstyle first found on this statue. This hairstyle also marks this statue out as Augustus from comparison with his portrait on his coinage, which can also give a date to it. This particular hairstyle is used as the first sign to point out this portrait type of Augustus as the Prima Porta type, the second and most popular of three official portrait types: other hairstyles of Augustus may be seen on the Ara Pacis
Ara Pacis
The Ara Pacis Augustae is an altar to Peace, envisioned as a Roman goddess...

, for example. Another full-size statue of Augustus with these "Primaporta type" features is the Augustus of Via Labicana, portraying Augustus in the role of Pontifex Maximus, now in the Museo Nazionale Romano.

The face is idealized, as with those of Polyclitus's statues. Art underwent important changes during Augustus's reign, with the extreme realism that dominated the republican era giving way to Greek influence, as seen in the portraits of the emperors - idealizations summarizing all the virtues that should be possessed by the exceptional man worthy of governing the Empire. In earlier portraits, Augustus allowed himself to be portrayed in monarchical fashion, but amended these with later more diplomatic images that represented him as "primus inter pares
Primus inter pares
Primus inter pares is Latin phrase describing the most senior person of a group sharing the same rank or office.When not used in reference to a specific title, it may indicate that the person so described is formally equal, but looked upon as an authority of special importance by their peers...

". The head and neck were produced separately in Parian marble
Parian marble
Parian marble is a fine-grained semitranslucent pure-white and entirely flawless marble quarried during the classical era on the Greek island of Paros in the Aegean Sea.It was highly prized by ancient Greeks for making sculptures...

 and inserted to the torso.

Breastplate relief

The statue's iconography is frequently compared to that of the carmen saeculare
Carmen Saeculare
The Carmen Saeculare is a hymn in Sapphic meter written by the Roman poet Horace. It was commissioned by the Roman emperor Augustus in 17 BC...

 by Horace
Quintus Horatius Flaccus , known in the English-speaking world as Horace, was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.-Life:...

, and commemorates Augustus's establishment of the Pax Romana
Pax Romana
Pax Romana was the long period of relative peace and minimal expansion by military force experienced by the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Since it was established by Caesar Augustus it is sometimes called Pax Augusta...

. The breastplate
A breastplate is a device worn over the torso to protect it from injury, as an item of religious significance, or as an item of status. A breastplate is sometimes worn by mythological beings as a distinctive item of clothing.- Armour :...

 is carved in relief with numerous small figures depicting the return of the Roman legionary eagles or aquila
Aquila is the Latin and Romance language word for eagle and may also refer to:-Signs and symbols:* Aquila , a Roman military standard* Latin name for the Eagle -Places:...

e lost to Parthia
Parthian Empire
The Parthian Empire , also known as the Arsacid Empire , was a major Iranian political and cultural power in ancient Persia...

 by Mark Anthony
Mark Antony
Marcus Antonius , known in English as Mark Antony, was a Roman politician and general. As a military commander and administrator, he was an important supporter and loyal friend of his mother's cousin Julius Caesar...

 in the 40s BC and by Crassus in 53 BC
53 BC
Year 53 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Messalla and Calvinus...

, thanks to the diplomacy of Augustus.

The figure in the centre, according to the most common interpretation, is the subjected Parthian king returning Crassus's standard to an armored Roman (possibly Tiberius
Tiberius , was Roman Emperor from 14 AD to 37 AD. Tiberius was by birth a Claudian, son of Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla. His mother divorced Nero and married Augustus in 39 BC, making him a step-son of Octavian...

, or symbolically Mars Ultor). This was a very popular subject in Augustan propaganda, as one of his greatest international successes, and had to be especially strongly emphasized, since Augustus had been deterred by Parthian military strength from the war which the Roman people had expected and had instead opted for diplomacy. To the left and right sit mourning female figures. A figure to one side with a sheathed sword personifies the peoples in the East (and the Teutons?) forced to pay tribute to Rome, and one on the other side with an unsheathed sword obviously personifies the subjected peoples (the Celts). From the top, clockwise, we see:
  • Sol
    Sol (mythology)
    Sol was the solar deity in Ancient Roman religion. It was long thought that Rome actually had two different, consecutive sun gods. The first, Sol Indiges, was thought to have been unimportant, disappearing altogether at an early period. Only in the late Roman Empire, scholars argued, did solar cult...

    , the sun god, spreading the tent of the sky
  • Aurora
    Aurora (mythology)
    Aurora is the Latin word for dawn, the goddess of dawn in Roman mythology and Latin poetry.Like Greek Eos and Rigvedic Ushas , Aurora continues the name of an earlier Indo-European dawn goddess, *Hausos....

     and Luna
  • the personification of the subjected peoples
  • the goddess Diana
  • the earth goddess Ceres/Tellus
    Tellus is a Latin word meaning "earth" and may refer to:* Terra or Terra Mater, the Roman Earth Mother goddess* Tellus , a citizen of ancient Athens who was thought to be the happiest of men...

     - similarly represented on the Ara Pacis
  • Apollo, Augustus's patron
  • the personification of the tributary peoples
  • Sol again
  • a Sphinx on each shoulder, representing the defeat of Cleopatra by Augustus

None of these interpretations are undisputed. The gods, however, probably all symbolize the continuity and logical consistency of the events - just as the sun and moon forever rise, so Roman successes are certain and divinely sanctioned. Furthermore, these successes are connected with the wearer of this breastplate, Augustus. The only active person is the Parthian king, implying that everything else is divinely desired and ordained.

Divine status

During his lifetime, Augustus did not wish to be depicted as a god (unlike the later emperors who embraced divinity), but this statue has many thinly-veiled references to the emperor's "divine nature", his genius
Genius (mythology)
In ancient Roman religion, the genius was the individual instance of a general divine nature that is present in every individual person, place or thing.-Nature of the genius:...

. Augustus is shown barefoot, which indicates that he is a hero and perhaps even a god, and also adds a civilian aspect to an otherwise military portrait. Being barefoot was only previously allowed on images of the gods, but it may also imply that the statue is a posthumous copy set up by Livia of a statue from the city of Rome in which Augustus was not barefoot.

The small Cupid
In Roman mythology, Cupid is the god of desire, affection and erotic love. He is the son of the goddess Venus and the god Mars. His Greek counterpart is Eros...

 (son of Venus) at his feet (riding on a dolphin, Venus's patron animal) is a reference to the claim that the Julian family were descended from the goddess Venus
Venus (mythology)
Venus is a Roman goddess principally associated with love, beauty, sex,sexual seduction and fertility, who played a key role in many Roman religious festivals and myths...

, made by both Augustus and by his adoptive father Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

 - a way of claiming divine lineage without claiming the full divine status, which was acceptable in the Greek East but not yet in Rome itself.


The Prima Porta-type of statues of Augustus became the prevailing representational style for him, copied full-length and in busts in various versions found throughout the empire up until his death in 14
Year 14 was a common year starting on Monday of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Pompeius and Appuleius...

. The copies never showed Augustus looking older, however, but represented him as forever young, in line with his propaganda goals.

In German

  • Heinz Kähler: Die Augustusstatue von Primaporta. Köln 1959.
  • Erika Simon: Der Augustus von Prima Porta. Bremen, Dorn 1959. (Opus nobile 13)
  • Hans Jucker: Dokumentationen zur Augustusstatue von Primaporta, in: Hefte des Archäologischen Seminars Bern 3 (1977) S. 16-37.
  • Paul Zanker: Augustus und die Macht der Bilder. München, C. H. Beck 1987, ISBN 3-406-32067-8
  • Kaiser Augustus und die verlorene Republik, Ausstellung Berlin 1988. Mainz, Zabern 1988. S. 386 f. Nr. 215.
  • Erika Simon: Altes und Neues zur Statue des Augustus von Primaporta, in: G. Binder (Hrsg.), Saeculum Augustum, Bd. 3, Darmstadt, WBG 1991, S. 204-233.
  • Dietrich Boschung: Die Bildnisse des Augustus, Gebr. Mann Verlag, Berlin 1993 (Das römische Herrscherbild, Abt. 1, Bd. 2) ISBN 3-7861-1695-4
  • Thomas Schäfer: Der Augustus von Primaporta im Wechsel der Medien, in: H. J. Wendel u.a. (Hrsg.), Wechsel des Mediums. Zur Interdependenz von Form und Inhalt, Rostock 2001, S. 37-58.
  • Vinzenz Brinkmann und Raimund Wünsche (Hgg.): Bunte Götter. Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur. Eine Ausstellung der Staatlichen Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München in Zusammenarbeit mit der Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Kopenhagen und den Vatikanischen Museen, Rom, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München 2004 ISBN 3-933200-08-3

External links

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