Sunday, August 27, 2006

Influences on Augustan Image

Steven Margitan
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006

On May 1, 2003, President Bush leapt from his fighter jet to the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and, in a prepared speech for the ship’s crew, claimed America finally won the war on terror ( This event, experienced by millions through the dissemination of print and television media, presented the President as a strong, powerful and courageous leader. Politicians around the world strive to present a certain public image of themselves to gain popularity among their constituents and further a specific political agenda. While this tactic certainly is effective, it is far from original – more than 2000 years ago Augustus Caesar showed his diligence at conveying specific messages through images. Instead of campaign ads, photo ops, and fundraisers; Augustus used statues, buildings, and other art commissions to achieve his personal and political goals. By considering the history and political climate of the Roman Republic while examining the art of this epoch, the viewer is able to decipher the messages Augustus presented to his people. This paper will describe how historical events in the Republic allowed Augustus to take power; discuss the princeps’ establishment of the Roman Golden Age; outline three themes common to Augustan art projects; and argue imagery on the Ara Pacis Augustae illustrates these themes.

“The Youth Who Owed Everything to His Name” (Zanker, 33)
On September 23, 63 BC Gaius Octavius (later known as Augustus Caesar) was born into a degenerating Roman Empire. The civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey – the historical point that would mark the beginning of a dark era in Roman history – was still fourteen years away, but the devolution of the Republic began well before Caesar and Pompey went to battle. The gradual elimination of Roman culture and values that created a climate conducive to war began in second century BC.

The Hellenization that began with successful Roman military campaigns in Greece served as a leading factor in creating a climate conducive to civil war. Cultural taboos were breached as military generals, growing wealthier and stronger, commissioned nude statues in their likeness to celebrate successes. These pieces gave individual likeness to statues the Greeks saved for idealized personifications of their gods. As wealth and power became consolidated in the hands of a select few within the Republic, and as these images proliferated, “Roman values were becoming no more than a meaningless ideology (Zanker, 2).” This loss of morals and change in the distribution of power ultimately led to a revolutionary change in the political structure.

Although the impact of Hellenization began early, the full extent of the damage caused by this change was not seen until Julius Caesar, Pompey, and the Roman Republic erupted in civil war. 49 BC marks the beginning of a tumultuous period in the Empire’s history. The ensuing years were plagued by violence, war, political uncertainty, and civil unrest. Rome was violently transforming from a 500-year-old republic into a fledgling empire (www.encarta.msn,com). Julius Caesar had the popularity to obtain ultimate power, but due to his premature death, never received the title of emperor. Instead the public would remember Augustus’ father as a god and Rome would continue to flounder in perpetuating violence.

“May I Succeed In Attaining the Honors and Position of My Father to Which I am Entitled” (Zanker, 33)
Hesitant at first to accept the responsibility of avenging Julius Caesar’s (Augustus’ adopted father) death, Augustus eventually decided to enter Roman politics. Augustus allied himself with Marc Antony and Lepidus, to form the second triumvirate and challenge the senate for control of Roman territory (Eck, 15). This allegiance enjoyed numerous successes against Caesar’s killers but could not last. Eventually Augustus and Marc Antony engaged in a battle that would determine the future leadership of Rome. In 31 BC Octavian Caesar defeated Antony and Cleopatra, and was then awarded the title Augustus by the Roman Senate making him the first Roman Emperor at 32 years old (Eck, 128). With all his political rivals eliminated, Augustus ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity previously unseen in the Republic. As part of this new era, Augustus began an aggressive program to return morals and culture to the gilded city.

As part of his moral reformation, Augustus established a number of different religious sects. Membership to these sects was a very high honor and determined primarily by social class. Before Augustus became Emperor, Roman gods’ importance continuously eroded – rather than recognizing a deity, wealthy individuals commissioned self-aggrandizing works in which they were depicted as gods. During his fight for political power Augustus used this self-glorification unabashedly, yet once emperor, he stemmed the proliferation of these Hellenistic works and returned the focus to religious icons. Augustan art actively promotes the messages of the princeps’ moral revival and images often glorify the different religious sects.

Following Roman success in East Greece, art increasingly focused on the glories of the individual rather than the condition of the state – the individual had become more important than the general public. Once in power, Augustus reversed this trend. As the sole political personage within the empire, Augustus’ greatest personal achievements were improvements to the state. Augustus was regarded for establishing Rome’s Golden Age and unprecedented levels of peace and prosperity. Therefore art celebrating the state was, at the same time, celebrating Augustus. This made the shallow art commemorating a single individual, popular only a few years earlier, obsolete. Art was now commissioned to celebrate religious deities, long-lasting peace, unprecedented prosperity, and Augustus by association since he was synonymous with these many virtues.

Although Augustus and social improvement were identical, he still cared greatly about how his image was shown in public. Augustus was rather young when he became the first Roman Emperor but he presented himself as a major political force much earlier in his life – he was only nineteen years old when “on [his] own initiative and at [his] own expense, [he] raised an army with which [he] set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction (Augustus, Res Gestae)." Augustus took great pride in his early achievements and constantly strove to portray a youthful image of himself. Although it was not as explicit as in earlier Roman works, Augustus’ image in art was carefully manipulated to maximize the favor with which the general public viewed him. These three themes – cultural/moral revival, political achievements, and personal depiction – combine together to create regularly recurring themes to Augustan art. These themes can be clearly seen while looking at the imagery on the Ara Pacis.

“He Gazes Upon the Temple and Reads the Name Augustus. Then the Monument Seems to Him Even Greater” (Zanker, 113)
Construction began on the Ara Pacis Augustae in 13 BC to celebrate Augustus’ victories in Spain and Gaul, and the establishment of the Pax Augustae. The large altar, used as a site to perform sacrifices, was located on the Campus Martius near Augustus’ mausoleum, Agrippa’s baths, and a large sundial. The gnomon of this sundial was set so that on Augustus’ birthday the shadow would lay across the Ara Pacis telling Romans Augustus was responsible for the new peace they enjoyed. It is with this symbolism and nuance that the three themes outlined above are presented on the Ara Pacis.

As emperor, Augustus led a moral revival in Rome. One of the ways he achieved this was by founding a variety of religious sects citizens would desire to be part of and taking an active role in religion himself. The importance of religion during this era is reinforced the Ara Pacis in a number of different ways. The monument’s original function was as a place for religious sacrifices and many of the friezes on the altar reinforce this idea. The processional friezes on the northern and southern sides of the enclosure wall depict Rome’s leading dignitaries walking towards the front of the altar to participate in a sacrifice. One can appreciate the importance of this ceremony by who is in the procession. All of Rome’s important figures are present including Augustus (1); Livia (2), his wife; Agrippa (3), long-time friend and confidant; Gaius (4), son of Agrippa and Augustus’ first chosen successor; and Tiberius (5), Augustus’ ultimate successor. The attendance of such a high profile crowd was meant to convince the plebs of religion’s gravity.

A number of other images on the altar also highlight religion’s new importance. Following Augustus in the procession are a number of Flamines (identified by their distinctive apex). The man that is to kill the sacrificial cow (6) holds the only visible blade supporting the idea that times are peaceful (if there was danger Augustus’ lictors would also be displaying the blades of their fasces).

Another portion of the Ara Pacis filled with religious overtones is the Aeneas Sacrificing to the Penates frieze on the southern portion of the western enclosing wall. He is shown performing a sacrifice much like the one about to take place in the processional frieze. According to legend, Aeneas performed this sacrifice after he fled a burning Troy and arrived safely in Latium (Simon, 23). This gives Augustus’ drive to establish religious practices historical validity – especially since Aeneas was revered as a founder of the city. An interesting detail in this frame is how many of the religious symbols used to identify prominent Augustan religious orders are present including the patera (offering plate originally held in Aeneas’ right hand), libation jug (held by an assistant) and lituus (curved staff held by Aeneas destroyed son). Ancient Roman viewers identified different religious orders by their symbols and therefore gave more credence to religion since the various symbols were present in this frame. These aspects of the monument worked to convince the viewer of the importance of paying tribute to an entity higher than himself. This change in public attitude led to a decline of the previously witnessed selfishness and a greater respect for the state.

While the Aeneas frieze highlights religion’s importance, there are still more messages embedded in the image. The Julian bloodline was famed for having descended from Venus, mother of Aeneas. Due to this connection, Augustus often used depictions of both Aeneas and Venus to convince the public of his ability to lead. Coins created by Augustus while still battling for political power have images of both gods. This association was used to convince Romans he had a divine right and ability to rule. Behind Aeneas in the frieze stands his son Julus-Ascanius (the namesake of the bloodline) (Simon, 23). Most of Julus has been lost but it is clear he is holding a crooked wooden staff not unlike the stick held by Fastulus in the left frieze and the Augur’s lituus. Based on the fragment in his hand, it is believed Augustus was also depicted holding a lituus on the southern processional frieze (Bianchi, 11). This commonality between Augustus and Julus presents a very subtle but interesting message to the viewer and gives the modern day scholar a hint as to how the princeps wanted himself portrayed. Julus is the son of a god. By including similarities between the two, Augustus is presenting himself as the son of a god as well. This was a message he routinely presented through art. Statues of Julius Caesar during Augustus’ rule present him as an older, dignified man, while images of the princeps, even when created near the end of his life, emphasize his youth. Augustus claimed to be the son of a god in order to establish a sense of uniqueness about him – much in the same way he used images of Aeneas and Venus – but he shied away from claiming to be a god himself in order to maintain reverence for his moral revival.

Aeneas’ image was used both to instigate a moral revival in Rome and reinforce a particular perception of Augustus, but it was also used to celebrate the princeps’ political achievements. The sacrifice performed by Aeneas is to thank family gods (penates) for the peace he found in Latium, but this symbol of peace can be construed to celebrate the Roman peace achieved by Augustus as much as anything done by Aeneas. It is in this manner that all images on the Ara Pacis commemorate Augustus’ political achievements.

Directly opposite of this frieze is the most famous and controversial image on the altar - the “Tellus” relief. Scholars have argued to great extent whether the monumental woman in the middle is Tellus, or a number of other deities including Ceres, Pax, and Venus. However the actual identity is irrelevant. Regardless of who the figure may be, the viewer is left with the same message – the flourishing vegetation, abundance of fruit, and serenity of the figures calm the viewer and remind him of the achievements of Augustus. The Aeneas and Tellus friezes combine to celebrate the peace now enjoyed by Romans but this recognition of the peace achieved is also witnessed on other parts of the monument.

The two other metaphorical friezes on the monument, Roma and Discovery of Romulus and Remus, also interact to speak to the viewer. Very little remains of the Roma relief but it is believed the goddess was pictured seated on a pile of enemy armor. Roma, often ready to spring to the defense of her city, looks relaxed and comfortable on her makeshift seat. Thanks to Augustus there is no need to worry about the safety of the empire. On the other side of the monument, Mars – the God of War – ensures the safe delivery of his twin sons to Fastulus. This frieze depicts the mythical founding of the city on Palatine Hill. In one sense the image reminds Romans of the extraordinary history of their city, but if read in another way, Augustus is presented as a founder of Rome. Augustus actively sought similarities between Romulus and himself – it was not by coincidence that he chose to reside on the same hill as the original foundation of the city. All these similarities acted to legitimize his power and portray him as one of Rome’s great founders.

“I Found Rome a City of Bricks and Left it a City of Marble.” (Augustus, The Quotations Page)
Aeneas shows the importance of religion, Romulus builds the foundation for Augustus’ villa, and Roma relaxes in security. As shown on the Ara Pacis, Augustus used art to send a variety of messages to the viewer – even the smallest of details support the three major themes of Augustan art. Augustus initiated the Roman Empire by ushering in a Golden Era of peace and prosperity to the violence-weary plebs. His moral revival program caused a reversal in how Romans saw their city. He strove to keep a young face and took careful attention to how he was viewed by the public. By doing so, he became one of the most loved and emulated Roman politicians of yesterday or today.

This work instilled a sense of confidence in the Roman public that the leaders were able and talented. I believe this is also why Benito Mussolini made this a highlight of his Roman theme park during the rise of Italian Fascism. Almost two thousand years after it was originally built, the Ara Pacis was reconstructed to use as political propaganda once again. Although the message derived was different, the final goal of pleasing the public was the same. It is too early to tell, but with the recent reopening of the altar, is the Italian government sending a new message to the plebs of Rome and those visiting for a week? There may be no aircraft carriers or fighter jets, but is the unveiling of the Ara Pacis in its new home Italy’s subtle way of saying “Mission Accomplished?”

Augustus, Caesar. Res Gestae (Deeds Accomplished), number 1. 14. Translation by Thomas
Bushnell. “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.”

Augustus, Caesar. The Quotations Page. “Quotations by Author – Caesar Augustus.” Quote by Caesar Augustus.

Bianchi, Emanuela. Ara Pacis Augustae. Fratelli Palombi Editori, Rome, 1994.

Castroita, David. The Ara Pacis Augustae: and the Imagery of Abundance in Later Greek and Early Roman Imperial Art. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995.

CNN. Mission Accomplished. 10/28/2003.

Conlin, Diane Atnally. The Artists of the Ara Pacis: The Process of Hellenization in Roman Relief Sculpture. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1997.

Eck, Werner. Augustus. Blackwell Publishing, Malden MA, 2003.

Galinsky, Karl. Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Introduction. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996.

Simon, Erika. Ara Pacis Augustae. New York Graphic Society LTD., Greenwich CT, 1969.

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