Essay, Research Paper: Augustus Of Prima Porta 

Architecture

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Since its discovery on 20 April 1963, the sculpture Augustus of Prima Porta
(fig. 1) has been the subject of much scholarly discussion. Found in a rural
villa near Prima Porta (fig. 2), the statue has resulted in an almost
unparalleled generation of literature.1 The marble sculpture is probably a copy
of a now-lost bronze statue which was made shortly after 22 BC—the exact
location for this original has been a question of speculation; the sanctuary of
Athena at Pergamum is one of many suggestions.2 Octavian became Augustus Caesar
in 27 BC after an elaborate public show of resignation and humility.3 (Augustus
was a religious title meaning "revered" which the Roman people
bestowed upon Octavian in honor of his service.) The Res Gestae were his memoirs
recording his victories in Gaul (France) and Spain, military victories in the
provinces which brought the Pax romana, an era of relative peace and prosperity,
to the Roman people. Augustus was lionized by the Roman people—he promoted
conservative Republican values even though he failed to re-establish it. He
tried to restore faith in the Roman state by equating his role as pontifex
maximus with religious and moral values. Augustus used religion to reorganize
state and to establish his own rule. He assumed the title of Pontifex maximus
(head priest) and revived old religious traditions like the Lupercalia festival
to further associate the emperor with the state cult. He also promoted the cult
of emperor as divine by building a temple to the Divine Julius. His views on
morality extended to laws regarding adultery, unchastity, and bribery. Under
Augustus, widowers were required to remarry within 3 years of losing a spouse,
and those fathering large families were rewarded with public recognition.4 In
Augustus of Prima Porta, Augustus is portrayed as a general and wears a cuirass
(breastplate) richly embellished with reliefs. Around his waist is draped the
paludamentum or officer's cloak. And, while the statue is beautifully preserved,
the fingers of the right hand have been restored, and, though they now suggest a
gesture of ad locutio or address, may originally have held a lance, or a wreath
of the imperial laurel.5 Augustus of Prima Porta is one of the earliest examples
of imperial portraiture used for political propoganda—a practice that began
with Augustus.6 In fact, one of the statue's purposes was to identify the state
with a well-meaning and enlightened Augustus. But it is more than that. The
sculpture of Augustus of Prima Porta is a Greco-Roman example of exquisite
craftsmanship of the Roman period. When one observes this sculpture, the power
of expression in its god-like appearance is apparent. Practice of deifying
rulers and erecting temples began in Rome as early as the reign of Augustus.
Augustus of Prima Porta is the type of statue that stood in such a temple.
"The sculptor has eloquently adapted the orator's gesture of the Aulus
Metellus [fig. 3] and combined it with the pose and body proportions prescribed
by the Greek Polykleitos and exemplified in his Spear Bearer, Doryphoros [fig.
4]."7 "Augustus could be seen as general praising troops, or as
peacetime leader speaking words of encouragement to the people—in either case,
he projects a benign emperor, touched by gods, governing by reason and
persuasion, not autocratic power."8 The god, Cupid (fig. 5), son of Venus,
rides a dolphin—probably representing Augustus' tie to divinity through Venus'
human son Aeneas.9 The dolphin itself refers to a Roman naval victory at Actium;
this support strongly suggests that the statue is a copy of a lost bronze
original.10 Bare feet suggest to some scholars that the work was posthumous and
signifies his apotheosis, or elevation to devine status.11 What has attracted
most scholars is the elaborate breast plate (fig. 6), whose throng of figures
and symbols lend themselves to a rich spectrum of interpretations of Augustan
art and propaganda. Decorations on the cuirass allude to Augustus's victory over
the Parthians in 20 BCE; so, the original bronze statue may have commemorated
that event. Carved on the cuirass are scenes in low relief recounting the
outstanding achievements of Augustus' reign and pictures of the gods and
goddesses who bestowed favor upon him. The central group depicts a Parthian
giving back the lost eagle from Carrhae to a Roman general. If historically
correct, this latter would be Tiberius, but a symbolic reading permits him to be
Romulus (with the wolf at his feet), Aeneas, Mars or some other important
figure. Apart from some female seated figures, representing conquered peoples
such as the Gauls and the Hispanians, the rest form a cosmic setting: the sky
god Caelus, Sol in his chariot, Aurora, Apollo on a winged griffin, Diana on a
stag; all flying around above Tellus who is cradling two babies. These
identifications may vary according to the aims of different scholars, but taken
as a whole, the scene conveys the god-given peace, order and fertility
accomplished by the new ruler of the world. The idealized and smooth face of the
emperor, together with the comma-shaped locks over his forehead, constitutes the
most common type of Augustus-portraits and contribute to the god-like
appearance.12 Augustus of Prima Porta is one of the earliest examples of
imperial deification. Augustus himself is in no small way responsible for this
trend, being one of the first to erect temples and statues for that purpose.13
The sculpture holds many clues pointing to the deification of Augustus—the
detailed breastplate with its many divine symbols, the presence of Cupid riding
the dolphin, the demigod-like stance of Augustus, and the bare feet. With so
much artistic detail and symbolism in the Augustus of Prima Porta, it is no
surprise that so many scholars have devoted their time to the uncovering of its
secrets.

Bibliography
1. "Augustus of Prima Porta" [online notes], Uppsala University
Archive, Accessed 2 December 1999; available from http://www.arkeologi.uu.se/primaporta/Augustus.htm.
2. "Augustus of Prima Porta" [online notes], Uppsala University
Archive, Accessed 2 December 1999; available from http://www.arkeologi.uu.se/primaporta/Augustus.htm.
3. "Augustus and the Early Roman Empire" [online notes], University of
Colorado, Accessed 2 December 1999; available from http://harpy.uccs.edu/roman/html/augustus.html
4. "Augustus and the Early Roman Empire" [online notes], University of
Colorado, Accessed 2 December 1999; available from http://harpy.uccs.edu/roman/html/augustus.html
5. Encyclopaedia Romana [encyclopaedia online], Accessed 3 December 1999;
available from http://www.ancientsites.com/as/er/augustusprimaporta.html 6.
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, Rev. ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999),
1:248. 7. Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, Rev. ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams,
1999), 1:248. 8. Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, Rev. ed. (New York: Harry N.
Abrams, 1999), 1:248. 9. Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, Rev. ed. (New York:
Harry N. Abrams, 1999), 1:248. 10. "Augustus of Prima Porta" [online
notes], Uppsala University Archive, Accessed 2 December 1999; available from
http://www.arkeologi.uu.se/primaporta/Augustus.htm. 11. Marilyn Stokstad, Art
History, Rev. ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999), 1:248. 12. "Augustus
of Prima Porta" [online notes], Uppsala University Archive, Accessed 2
December 1999; available from http://www.arkeologi.uu.se/primaporta/Augustus.htm.
13. William Fleming, Art, Music, & Ideas (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and
Winston, 1970), 66.
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