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Prima Porta Augustus
Year 1st century
Type White Marble
Location Vatican Museums, Rome

Augustus of Prima Porta (Italian: Augusto di Prima Porta) is a 2.04m high marble statue of Augustus Caesar which was discovered on April 20, 1863 in the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta, near Rome. His wife Livia Drusilla retired to the villa after his death. The sculpture is now displayed in the Braccio Nuovo of the Vatican Museums.



The dating of the Primaporta 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 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 widow'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 Galinas 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 reliefs in the cuirass depict the retrieval of the standards captured by the Parthians, an event in which the young Tiberius himself took a part, serving as intermediary with the Parthian kin, 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 (42 BC — 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-wearer) — meaning the statue should form part of a commemorative monument to his latest victories; he is in military clothing, carrying a consular baton and raising his right hand in a rhetorical "adlocutio" pose, addressing the troops. The bas-reliefs on his armored "cuirass" have a complex allegorical and political agenda, alluding to diverse Roman deities, including Mars, god of war, as well as the personifications of the latest territories conquered by him: Hispania, Gaul, Germania, Parthia (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 by the sculptor Polykleitos. Compare the Orator in the Museo Archeologico in Florence. The Doryphoros's contrapposto 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 made the model all the more appropriate for this image.[1] 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 paludamentumor "cloth of the commander". On the other hand, Augustus's barefootedness and the inclusion of Cupid 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, but so few traces remain today (having been lost in the ground and having faded since discovery) that we have 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 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 in Scotland, Fabio Barry, has criticized this reconstitution as unsubtle and exaggerated[2].



The head

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.[3] 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, 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". The head and neck were produced separately in Parian marble and inserted to the torso.

Breastplate relief

The statue's iconography is frequently compared to that of the carmen saeculare by Horace, and commemorates Augustus's establishment of the Pax Romana. The breastplate is carved in relief with numerous small figures depicting the return of the Roman legionary standards or vexillae lost to Parthia by Mark Anthony in the 40s BC and by Crassus in 53 BC, 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 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, the sun god, spreading the tent of the sky
  • Aurora and Luna
  • the personification of the subjected peoples
  • the goddess Diana
  • the earth goddess Ceres/Tellus - 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. 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 (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, made by both Augustus and by his adoptive father Caesar - 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.


Augustus as praetor - example of the Togatus type (Louvre)

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

Other types

Other iconographic types of imperial portraiture, of which this was only one, included the emperor as pontifex maximus (eg the Via Labicana Augustus), the emperor as absolute leader in civil life and as "first among equals" among the senators ("Togatus", or toga-wearing), as conquering general on horseback (the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius), and - usually posthumously, after his apotheosis - as a god (half-naked, personifying a Roman god - this type is prefigured by the Prima Porta statue, in that it is barefoot).


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


  1. ^ John Pollini, "The Augustus from Prima Porta and the Transformation of the Polykleitan Heroic Ideal", in Warren G. Moon (ed.), Polykleitos, the Doryphoros and Tradition. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press) 1995, analyses the cultural significance of unmistakable Polykleitan features in the Prima Porta Augustus, presented in aemulatio as the successor to heroic Polykleitan portrayals of Alexander the Great.
  2. ^ The Washington Post, "Augustus of Prima Porta", May 4, 2008
  3. ^ Coins were one of the most effective ways of spreading propaganda, such as news of decisive battles and changes of ruler, because on such occasions new coins would be minted.

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