Wednesday, September 8, 2004

The Power of an Emperor: The Augustinian Agenda & Imagery As Propaganda

Matt Bishop
Honors in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Introduction:
Rise to Power

In the scope of the Roman Empire’s history, perhaps no emperor is as lauded as Augustus. Born under the name Gaius Octavius, he seized sole power in 31 B.C. and, through a dramatic program of cultural reformation, moved Rome into an era commonly referred to as the “Pax Romana”, translated from Latin as the “Roman Peace”. In the years before his rule, the empire had been mired by what many in the leading class considered to be a degradation of values and a focus away from the Roman religion that had so definitively been a part of the empire’s rise. In addition, political discord had resulted in a century of civil war. To combat this chaos, Augustus’ agenda encompassed three areas of improvement: 1) an increased focus on the integration of religion into public life, 2) the construction of magnificent public monuments and buildings, and 3) a revival of moral virtues. By the time of his death in 14 C.E., the Roman Empire was well into an unprecedented two hundred year period of peace and prosperity.

The beginning of Octavian’s rise to power has its roots in the period immediately following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. As Caesar’s great nephew, adopted son, and chosen heir, Octavian, only nineteen years old, united with Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus to form the second triumvirate and force the Senate to allow them consular power. They initially divided control so that Octavian had rule over Spain and Sardinia, Antony the East and Gaul, and Lepidus Africa. When Antony’s lieutenant died in 40, however, Octavian used the opportunity to take Gaul, and by 36, he had replaced Lepidus in the South.

This increase in power left Octavian with only Antony in the way of his rise to the role as Rome’s lone ruler. The strain that would have certainly been a product of sharing power in the world’s largest republic had undoubtedly magnified, and Antony’s decision to take up Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, as his lover- despite having married Octavian’s sister in 37- could only have aggravated the relationship. Cleopatra was the mother of Caesarion, whom she had by Julius Caesar, and believed him to be Caesar’s true heir. By 32 B.C., Octavian and Antony were engaged in civil war.

The famous Roman statue, "Apollo Belvedere", of the Greek god Apollo.

Beyond the massive military forces that Octavian claimed leadership over, perhaps the most powerful tool that he used in the conflict with Antony was the manner in which he portrayed both himself and his opponent. If he were to gain the necessary backing to engage in civil war, after all, he would need to demonstrate his own superior ability over that of Antony’s. A significant element of his winning power, then, had to do with convincing Rome that he would be the best ruler.

Long before the conflict with Antony had even begun to move toward war, Octavian had been creating himself an image that would fit well with his intention to rule.It was a frequent occurrence for Roman leaders to relate their ancestry to Greek gods and the decisions of Octavian and Antony were no exception.Octavian chose Apollo and Antony, Dionysis. The difference in such a choice could not have been more significant; Apollo’s image was that of discipline, morality, purification, and punishment for excess, while Dionysis was a passionate lover of wine, parties, and affairs. For an empire that had endured decades of civil war and drastic leadership change, the image of Dionysis as ruler was not likely to be endearing.
A Roman statue of Dionysus portrays him drinking wine.

Perhaps more important than his association with Apollo was Octavian’s relationship to Julius Caesar, which, from the moment he became part of the triumvirate, he emphasized often. In 42 B.C. he obtained admission from the Senate for Caesar to be deified, meaning that, as his son, Octavian became the “Divi Filius”, the son of a god. In stressing this connection to Caesar, he was thus emphasizing his own divinity. This reference was most obvious on the coins Augustus minted; frequent images included Caesar’s throne or Octavian’s profile facing Caesar’s. One particular coin portrayed Aeneas and Venus, a reference to the divine ancestry that Caesar, in his lifetime, had claimed for himself. In borrowing these images, Octavian was claiming a direct relation to the divinity of the Julian family.

Denarius of Octavian
A coin that shows Octavian facing Caesar, with the faint words "Divi Filius" emphasizing Octavian's
divinity as a product of his relation to the former ruler. 38 B.C.

Another important tool that was important in shaping the Roman public’s perception of Octavian during this period- and one that he would use throughout his rule- was his image as it appeared on the empire’s statues. He was youthful and beardless (an extremely atypical image for a male leader of this period), and his expression is regularly defined as arrogant. His hair is dishevelled, an element that, in combination with the other features, certainly evokes Alexander the Great and his miraculous campaigns. One of the first and most fantastic of Octavian’s statues, put up in 43 when he was only nineteen, is that of him on a galloping horse placed in the Senate chambers. All of this imagery serves to portray Octavian as strong and capable of commanding not only an army, but also the entire empire. In combination with the emphasis on his own divinity, Octavian played off the concerns of Rome’s citizens and provided a stark contrast to the decadence and drunkenness of the Dionysian Antony.
In 31 B.C., at the Battle of Actium, Octavian defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra and thus ended the civil war. From this date until 23 he had himself elected consul, marking the beginning of his rule. In 27 B.C. the Senate assigned him “maius imperium”- greatest power. This is generally seen as the date in which the empire was consolidated and Octavian became Rome’s first emperor, or “Imperator Augustus”. This new title was given to him by the Senate and carried with it significant religious (an “augur” was a priest who interpreted omens) and political implications. Though he is frequently characterized as having returned Rome to its people, no previous Roman leader had ever been allowed as much power. Augustus slyly self-designated himself the “princeps”, or “first citizen”, and primarily relied on this title rather than “Imperator”, a move that would parallel the modesty with which he chose to rule.

Militaristic Octavian
This statue demonstrates the youthfulness and arrogance that defined Octavian's earliest portrait type.
Includes Baroque modifications to the hair. 33 B

Along with this change in title came a modification in image. The statues that were being built retained Augustus’ beardlessness and youth, but no longer kept his arrogance, instead focusing on proportionality and beauty. His hair, for example, no longer had the wild locks that reflected Alexander the Great, but was neatly divided into (unrealistic) symmetrical sections. Overall, these statues had very few of the actual physical traits of Augustus. Regardless, writers of his time, undoubtedly influenced by these portraits, described him with words like “gravitas”, “sanctus” and “auctoritas”, respectively meaning dignity, holiness, and authority. Throughout history these statues have been the predominant representation of his appearance, and the notions that they associate with Augustus would come to define how history perceived his reign.

A New Image
The portrait that has primarily represented Augustus throughout history, despite its few actual physical traits of him. 27 B.C.

II. Augustinian Agenda
Religious Renewal

When Augustus inherited Rome, public sentiment was pessimistic. The decades of civil war that had preceded (and occurred during) his rise to power were seen as an indication of the empire’s moral collapse. To combat the disorder and mistrust that had afflicted Rome, Augustus would have to engage in an astounding program of national revitalization and, in so doing, make such a program visually evident to Rome’s masses. In the twenty years following his designation as emperor, Augustus literally changed the Roman landscape with his plan to conspicuously revive its society. The primary themes included revitalization of religion, virtues, and the honor of the Roman people.

Augustus’ program for religious renewal began around 29 B.C. The most comprehensive of his promises include the following: to rebuild all of Rome’s ruined temples; to reinstitute many cults, allowing the revival of their statues and rituals; to bring back the Roman religion’s former priesthood; and to emphasize that the religion’s texts should regain authority as guides to behaviour. In 28, he finished and dedicated the Temple of Apollo, a ceremony that was indicative of his dramatic change in focus regarding the primary gods of Rome’s religion. At the expense of Jupiter’s responsibilities, this new temple gained the Sibylline books. (These texts were oracular scrolls written by prophetic priestesses). In addition, Mars Ultor, the god of war, gained the ceremonies that preceded and followed military campaigns, another of Jupiter’s former associations. The only religions that were discouraged in this new era were those rooted in the cultures of Egypt and the Far East. Because these cults promoted salvation to people as private individuals they threatened the principals of the Roman religion, carrying with them the danger of alienation from the larger society and the creation of private, dissolute sects. Despite this particular discouragement, Augustus was successful at using the formation of most cults to create a link between the ruling class and the plebeians; whenever a group of Romans got together to begin a cult, the princeps was more than willing to donate a statue for them. In this way, religion became a tool for the apparent minimization of class difference.

For members of the Roman priesthood, the Augustan agenda did not affect their social status so much as it did their powers. Their responsibility to interpret bad omens was eliminated, the Sibylline books were well hidden under the Temple of Apollo, and Augustus gave himself the responsibility of carrying the augur’s staff prior to military campaigns. These changes were all an indication of the princeps’ agenda to increase his own religious responsibility. In 12 B.C., when Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, the Pontifex Maximus (chief priest), had passed away, Augustus assumed the position for himself, merging the powers of church and state under one title and becoming the mediator between men and the gods.
Pontifex Maximus
Last decade of 1st Century B.C.

This transformation was hardly a radical one, however. Imagery from essentially 20 B.C. on depicted Augustus as highly pious. He was frequently clad in a toga and his facial expression evokes a modesty that is a far cry from the arrogance and wild hair that was a staple of his image during his rise to power. The abundance of these statues, exhibited as far away as Greece and Asia Minor, is not only an indication that he considered this position one of great honor, but that he was a model of piety for all Romans to follow. This notion is manifested in his encouragement for all citizens to wear the toga at festivals and in public places, despite the garment’s relative unpopularity.

Ambitious Public Building Program

Augustus’ building program was far-reaching and grandiose. Prior to his reign, in the late Republican society, the appearance of the state’s public buildings was poor relative to those of wealthy private individuals. Though Augustus himself and many of his primary supporters, had amassed immense fortunes during his climb to power, he decried private luxury and extensively invested his government in restoring honor to the empire and its people by putting up elaborate public buildings and monuments.
This program went forth even at the expense of private wealth. One famous and symbolic gesture occurred when Vedius Pollio, a very rich freedman known for cruelty to his slaves, gave Augustus his estate when he passed away. The princeps levelled Pollio’s mansion and, in its place, built the Porticus Liviae, opening it to the public and filling it with fountains, colonnades, and art.

For secular projects such as this, Augustus primarily relied on the engineering of Marcus Agrippa, one of his closest friends and the commander of his military campaigns. Agrippa was responsible for a wide range of Rome’s engineering marvels during this period, some of the most well known including the complete reorganization of the empire’s water supply, involving the reparation and building of new aqueducts and the building of the first public baths. He was also responsible for the construction of Campus Agrippae, which included a racetrack for horses, an exercise area, and the extensive incorporation of Greek art. He assembled the largest sundial ever- the Solarium Augusti- using an Egyptian obelisk, restored the Theater of Pompey and built two new theaters, all of which, when used together, had a total capacity of 40,000. The greatest of Agrippa’s expansions involved the Saepta Iulia, a voting place for the plebs and a testament to Augustus’ incorporation of lower class involvement.

Another significant indication of Augustus’ commitment to the lower classes were the seventy days a year given to using the afore-mentioned theaters, and often the Saepta Iulia, for regularly scheduled sporting events. The writer Suetonius declared that Augustus “surpassed all his predecessors in the number, variety, and splendour of his games” and Augustus himself declared that he gave gladiatorial games eight times, with the use of ten thousand fighters, and animal games twenty-six times, with a total of thirty-five thousand animals killed. Augustus was also renowned for the frequency and enthusiasm with which he attended the games. Unlike many other government officials, he was unconcerned the prospect of sitting with the masses, and the applause he received was a strong indication of his popularity and power. His genuine interest in the activities and his practice of apologizing when he was unable to attend gratified the citizen attendees; previous leaders had rarely expressed such enthusiasm.

Relative to the emperors that followed Augustus, however, his zeal for sporting events was easily outdone. It was not until Vespasian that the Colosseum was built and such entertainment could be performed on a much more massive scale. In general, Augustus’ focus was theater; Roman poets, particularly Horace, Ovid, Livy, and Vergil, flourished in the Augustan age, and their plays were performed in the public theaters. If Rome was to be the cultural center of the Empire, it would need to outdo the productions of the Greeks.

Another important symbolic structure that signified the magnificence of Augustus’ building program was the wall that surrounded the Forum of Augustus. Perhaps the most interesting elements of this construction were its course and its function. Augustus was unusually careful in making certain that its route did not touch private property, another example of how the princeps demonstrated that he, too, was subject to the laws of the Empire, just as other citizens were. Its primary purpose was to serve as a dividing line between the simplicity of residential areas and the magnificence of the newly erected public buildings and temples. In isolating his new architecture in such a way, Augustus further highlighted its magnificence, keeping in theme with his famous statement that he “found Rome brick and left it marble”.

Return to Morality

Augustus’ yearning for a revival of moral virtues was not out of place when he assumed the emperorship; as previously mentioned, immorality was largely perceived to be the cause of the extensive political disorder that plagued the previous years. Unlike his other reforms, however, this one proved most difficult to legislate, and little of its effects are evidenced in the art or architecture that remains.

One of his more ambitious attempts at moral legislation was the product of his desire to improve Rome’s sexual ethics and get the upper classes to produce more children. In 18 B.C., he made it possible for adulterers to be criminally prosecuted, for penalties regarding inheritance to be carried out against unmarried persons, and for rewards to be given to parents who produced many children. The visual expression of these ideals is limited, however.

The focus on the significance of offspring could be interpreted to be expressed on the Ara Pacis Augustae, an altar honoring Augustus erected by the Senate for his successful military campaigns in Spain and Gaul, where the imperial children take up the forefront of the imagery. This positioning, however, could simply be explained as the natural location for children to be placed on such a monument. It is known, however, that a statue was built in honor of an especially fertile slave woman, and that an old man who had produced sixty-one descendants was received at the Capitol and made a sacrifice. The frequency of such events is unknown, but is unlikely to have been too significant. Ultimately, this program was considered a failure; the upper classes, to which it was principally directed, thought it was foolish and meddled too much in the private lives of Rome’s citizenry.

Ara Pacis Augustae

Despite the legislative shortcomings of this agenda, Augustus’ greatest influence on Rome’s morality may have come from his decision to (relatively) downplay his own significance. He had continually attempted to lead by example, and eventually his image became significantly more simple and modest. As previously mentioned, generally all monuments built in his honor took on religious connotations. Many of the altars erected for him were of relatively modest proportions; the Ara Pacis Augustae and Ara Fortunae Reducis do not seem to fit with the image of the “divi filius” that Augustus had so insistently focused on in the 30s B.C. His constraint is also evident in his decision to allow other men to build in a period when construction was such a prominent aspect of his program. Balbus the Younger was allowed to build a theater in celebration of a triumph, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, with financial assistance from Augustus, restored the Basilica of the Aemilii in the Forum.

Around 17 B.C. a new portrait of Augustus emerged, displaying this humility. In relation to the statues of 27 it displays a greater proportion of his actual physical traits, abandoning the forks and tongs of the hair and the youthful arrogance of the face. Regardless of this creation, the previous, more youthful-looking portrait remained the standard, and still today is seen as the primary representation of Augustus’ image.

An Older Augustus
As the princeps aged his portrait remained ageless, but the hair gains a more realistic
appearance and all traces of the youthful hero are gone.

III. Conclusion

Augustus officially ruled until his death in August (the month named for him) of 14 A.D. By 13, however, his successor, Tiberius, was essentially emperor, and the Pax Romana would continue for two centuries based on the footing he established. The implications of his passing would certainly have been enormous; few leaders had ever ruled with such a dramatic agenda for change and many citizens would have been unable to remember any ruler prior to Augustus, his reign standing out as one of Rome’s longest.

Looking at Augustus’s legacy, one could safely say that his emperorship dramatically altered the face of Rome’s political organization for centuries to come. The monarchy that he established set the standard for many emperors that followed. Perhaps more impressive than the political organization he instigated was the manner by which he personally carried it out. The intense campaign for sole leadership that mellowed into the careful, exemplar images of modesty; the glorification of public holdings at the expense of private wealth; the desire to legislate according to citizens’ concerns and then draw back such measures once they are considered too burdensome - these are all examples of the style that served as the root for his success in the carrying out of his cultural reformations. The twenty-year period at the beginning of his reign during which he implemented these reformations is the basis for the legacy that ultimately set him apart from all leaders before and all emperors after: the peace and prosperity that would follow the empire long after his death. It is this accomplishment that makes Augustus stand out in the long history of Roman rulers, and the reason that he is considered the ultimate model of what it means to be “imperator”.

Personal Observations

In my research of Augustus, two elements stand out. The first is a newfound awe at the history of complex, intentional imagery used for the purpose of political propaganda. As I researched and wrote this article, of course, the American Presidential campaigns for the 2004 election are occurring. Each candidate is forced to try to portray himself in a positive and endearing light via whatever means are most likely to reach the intended voters. The parallels to the Augustan age, more than two-thousand years earlier, are fascinating: just as John Kerry tries to paint himself as a Vietnam War hero with a flashy thirty-second television commercial, Octavian erects an equestrian statue in the Senate chambers; and like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attempts to offer a different, less heroic, interpretation of Kerry’s war service, Octavian uses Antony’s self-designated Dionysian image against him. And just as the Augustan image was malleable according to the times that required different forms of leadership, so too does George W. Bush turn from a compassionate conservative into a war president. The notion that an individual who is trying to appeal to the masses can cram so much potentially powerful information into one statue or coin or leaflet or commercial and use it as a main means for propelling that person to power or appeasing citizens is timeless. I enjoyed discovering these parallels.

The second aspect of my research that I feel compelled to write about also relates to Augustus’ politics. Despite his (relatively successful) attempts to portray his rulership as a return to a true Republic, Roman power had never previously been so invested in one individual. He was, after all, the first emperor. It is a powerful testament to his abilities as such a leader that he was capable of maintaining this power while portraying a façade of republicanism through such gestures as regularly consulting the Senate, establishing communication with the lower class, and strictly attempting to abide the laws which he put into place. Even when his laws were unpopular, such as those regarding childbearing, the system he put in place allowed them to be eventually phased out. Though these maneuvers were undoubtedly influenced by the necessity for maintaining peace and his hold on power, Augustus demonstrated an intelligence and flexibility that few Roman leaders before or after were capable of.

Fagan, Garrett G. De Imperatoribus Romanis. 1999. Pennsylviania State
University. 23 Aug. 2004.

Gill, N.S.. From Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus to Emperor Augustus
Caesar. 23 Sept. 1997. University of Minnesota. 24 Aug. 2004.

Kreis, Steven. The History Guide. 1996. Wake Technical Community College.
24 Aug. 2004.

La Regina, Adriano, ed. Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme. Milan: Electa, 1998.

Zanker, Paul. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.