I have a bit of ancient history for you on this first day of August, a month named for the very first emperor of Rome, Augustus Caesar, who ruled from 27 BCE to 14 CE. Born Gaius Octavius to a pretty young Julia Ceasar, sister to a certain Julius, and a wealthy senator who widowed her, the boy knew public life early on. He made his debut at the age of twelve when delivering the eulogy at his grandmother’s funeral, another Julia, and sat as an equal among a board of Rome’s high priests less than five years later. Pretty sage for a teenager, Octavius was embraced as the adoptive son of his uncle Julius, forever the most famous Caesar, and accompanied his new daddy in triumphal processions across Africa and Spain following a series of decisive civil war victories. However, their warm bond was cut short, quite literally, on those troublesome Ides of March in 44 BCE, when Octavius learned of his uncle-father-now-dictator’s brutal stabbing on the senate floor while completing his studies in Apollonia, now modern day Albania.
Octavius was all of eighteen years old when he boldly chose to return to Rome and claim his sweet but dangerous inheritance. There he met Marc Antony, Julius Caesar’s chief lieutenant, who chose to hold all of his deceased commander’s papers and assets hostage, forcing Octavius to pay the late Caesar’s bequests to the Roman populace from whatever meager resources he could piece together. Caesar’s murderers had fled and other elite statesmen began to size up Octavius for use in their own schemes, underestimating his abilities which quite exceeded his years.
In a clever turn, Octavius poignantly celebrated a series of public games, a tradition established by his predecessor, and won over many of Julius Caesar’s fighting men to his own allegiance in the festive process. Things get a bit complicated here, when Octavius is forced to pander to the senate to be officially recognized as Caesar’s heir and to participate in a five-year Triumvirate, or a three-way rule between himself, Marc Antony and another faithful Roman named Marcus Aemilius Lepidus to resettle the turbulent state. The three succeeded in compelling Julius Caesar’s killers to commit suicide in the eastern reaches of the realm and in arranging nobility-pleasing marriages for Octavius, who married Livia Drusilla, and Antony, who wed Octavius’ sister, Octavia. Not surprisingly, the Triumvirate virtually disintegrated after its five-year lifespan, when territory squabbles caused unrest and Antony, who had spent much time warming the council rooms and bedchambers of the Egyptian royal court in place of his murdered liege, brutishly divorced his bride, proving in Octavian’s eyes that he was really just another of Queen Cleopatra’s playthings after all.
The movie starring Elizabeth Taylor can fill in a blank or two here. What might have been one of the most epic love stories of all time ended in the slaying of Cleopatra’s (alleged) son by Julius Caesar, Ptolemy XV Caesar, some hari-kari, an asp’s fatal kiss and Octavian’s legions’ outright annexation of Egypt.
Quickly after, the Roman Principate was established, with Octavius as princeps, the first among many, many citizens. He casually took the title Imperator as well, but through delegation of power and the making of new appointments he tactfully convinced the senate they were still overseeing a republic of the old fashion. He supplemented the “Caesar” of his name, culled from his fortuitous adoption, with the staunch appellation “Augustus”, which evoked ancient religious practices of augury and even supremacy over the rest of mankind. Yet Octavius, now Augustus, recalled the other Caesar’s bloody demise well enough to never let his autocratic rule become corrupted by abuses of naked power.
Despite his masking of monarchy with the trappings of democracy, Augustus is remembered as one of the good guys. He was no Nero, with his garish golden villa, nor did he provoke his own household guard to assassinate him in the dead of the night like Caligula. Augustus’ time was that of the Pax Romana, two centuries of order and prosperity. He put Italian interests first, reduced the size of an unwieldy military, piously restored temples, kept taxes admirably low, expanded borders without much bloodshed, turned Rome from a brick hovel into a marble metropolis, struck new coinage and crafted thriving infrastructure from crumbling trade routes. He was bright and wrote many lost treatises on politics and diplomacy, and was known to be a fine-looking man indeed, polite of speech and gentle with his relations.
However, it was Augustus’ mastery of visual propaganda which has kept his reputation as solid as a marble bust throughout the passing millennia. Perhaps he thought himself a fine-looking man indeed, too, because he expertly used his own image to fit himself and his kin into a moralistic, dynastic narrative the world will never forget. Abandoning the veristic, or very life-like, portraiture of the old Roman republics, Augustus had himself portrayed as idealised and never aging, linked to historical heroes and mythological divinities— visual themes that would go largely unaltered for some three hundred years and be enthusiastically emulated by Napoleon Bonaparte centuries later. Yet Augustus was also careful to ensure that his likeness bore strict resemblance to Julius Caesar, from whom he drew all his status. The same protruding lower lip, elongated nose, thin cheeks, wide forehead with a heavy, pensive brow and cropped hair falling into a flat row of curled forelocks are rampant in Augustinian imperial portraiture, as well as in that of a great host of later rulers who traced their ancestry to the first Caesars.
Two distinct flavours of Augustus can be sampled, that of the god-fearing protector and that of the unhesitating noble conqueror. In his portrait as Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest, he is clad in a simple trailing toga, his youthful head hooded in loose fabric to indicate his humility before the gods. His feet remain bare and his arms, now fallen away, were sculpted in a softly outstretched manner, likely in a gesture of heartfelt benediction to his peoples.
Contrarily, the Augustus of Prima Porta depicts the fearsome Imperator, in full military regalia and striking an adlocutio pose with an upraised right arm to address ranks of troops. The statue also employs iconography to highlight the supposed divine heritage of Augustus. At his feet Cupid rides a dolphin. The dolphin is an emblem of Venus, and Cupid is her son, as was Aeneas. The Julian family happily traced their ancestry back to Aeneas and, therefore, consider themselves descendants of the goddess of love. As Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, this use of imagery allowed Augustus to remind viewers of his heavenly ties which gave him rights to seize such pre-eminence in the world. For besides being in a pose and the dress of a general, the relief on the cuirass shows one of Augustus’ greatest victories—the return of the Parthian standards. During the civil wars, one legion’s standards were lost when it was defeated by the Parthians. In a great feat of diplomacy, and curiously not military action, Augustus was able to negotiate the return of the standards to the legion and to Rome. Additional figures on the cuirass personify Roman gods and the flourishing of the Pax Romana.
Swords, spears and cunning strategies shape the outcome of battles, but it would seem that art is fully capable of forging the staying power of empires. Records have disappeared and only stony ruins remain to us, yet we still peer on Augustus today as he would have preferred to be seen. History books tells us of the first Roman Emperor’s ability topple enemies and reign justly, so justly he was deemed a god after death and we still carve out three weeks of the year as his namesake. But the material cultures which Augustus himself proclaimed appropriate really show us this gallant top patrician’s accomplishments and desires, and continue to sway perceptions of classical days gone by. Some two thousand years on, I’m inclined to say seeing might be better than believing.
Sources: Augustus, Roman Emperor, Encyclopedia Britannica// Imperial Sculpture in the Early Roman Empire, Boundless Art History