«A Visual Analysis of the Portrait of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus» - Free Essay Paper

A Visual Analysis of the Portrait of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus


Despite the fact that the days of Roman Empire have passed into oblivion, the personality of its emperor Octavian Augustus is increasingly attracting the attention of modern scholars and history buffs. Octavian Augustus created the Empire, which included the entire Mediterranean basin, as well as modern Italy, Spain, France, Germany and part of Yugoslavia. For more than forty years of ruling, the emperor made reforms of great importance, which were in force the next three centuries. Not wanting to destroy the old republican organs of government, Augustus created a new class of politicians and the aristocracy of the people who were loyal to him. He also organized a new system of provinces and numerous municipalities that contributed to the Romanization of the Mediterranean basin. The emperor contributed to the reformation of land and sea forces, the construction of new ports in different parts of the vast empire, designed to protect its borders.[1] The peace that followed after a decade of the civil war contributed to the revival of trade, prosperity of Arts and Sciences. In turn, the conquest of new territories, especially the rich Egypt, significantly replenished the empire’s fund. Although Italy remained the most privileged province with a lot of new roads and decorated cities, Augustus visited many other provinces and helped them in difficult times.

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Through active internal and external policies, Octavian Augustus was constantly concerned about his image. To this end, he used the opportunity of monumental sculpture, the mission of which was to glorify the Roman Emperor as a brave and invincible warrior and commander, radiant God, and the High Priest. The last image was of particular importance in the policy of Octavian Augustus since he sought to demonstrate to the Roman people that he was not only a political and military leader, but also the spiritual leader of his country, able to lead his people to the correct spiritual and religious paths. This paper provides a visual analysis of the Portrait of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus as the epitome of the propaganda of Octavian Augustus’ image as the spiritual leader of the Roman people.

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The statue depicting Augustus as togatus, sacrificing to the gods, is considered to be one of the most significant works of the portrait sculpture of the early Roman Empire. It was created by an unknown sculptor after 12 BC and found in the Via Labicana.[2] Currently, the statue is kept in Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Museum of Rome). The type of a statue called “togatus”, which was not known to the Hellenistic Greeks, in the plastic sense was more Roman than the type of a commander portrayed by Hellenistic models. Such statues always depicted men standing straight and draped in a toga. This iconography was used, in particular, to depict Roman emperors and senators. As a special kind of portrait, the given type of statues emerged in the era of the Republic. As the Roman state developed and prospered, aesthetic needs of Romans also changed. Usual busts were no longer enough to praise famous speakers, successful politicians, and victorious generals. It caused the emergence of statues of outstanding people in full growth - homo politicus. The statues were placed on high pedestals in public places. Since a depicted man was an official, the sculptural portrait depicted him dressed in Roman honor robe - a toga. As a result, such statues themselves receive the name of a “togatus.”[3]

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Augustus in the form of a priest, wrapped in a toga, is shown in a state of communion with the deity to whom he sacrifices. He seems to hold a sacrificial bowl with moisture, sacred to the god, in his right hand. The pose of Augustus-priest, namely the position of his feet, tilt of the head, and a lung and pointedly respectful movement of the torso slightly back demonstrate the refinement of external plastic art forms of the early empire. Unlike a Republican togatus, characterized by dense and bulky drapery of the fabrics, in the statue of Augustus the clothes are presented in another manner: dotted with numerous small pleats, they allow the viewer to feel the hidden figure. The shoulders are depicted rather clearly; so is the knee of the right leg. In the face of Augustus with sunken cheeks and weary eyes one might see the sculptor’s desire to transfer the old age of the great emperor. However, at the same time the image of the emperor is characterized by heroic features since as in the earlier portraits, he is presented as a person standing above ordinary people.

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Moreover, in the image of Augustus-togatus, the sculptor sought to convey the priest’s separation from the world while communicating with the divine. The features of Augustus’ face demonstrate great emotionality, expressiveness, as well as deep concentration and spiritual enlightenment, especially noticeable in the contemplation of the statue on the right. In addition, the emperor’s face shows intense awareness of the almost mystical sense of the significance of the moment, which is better seen from the front. In the portrait busts and statues of Augustus as a commander and a deity, the influence of classicism is clearer than in the previous sacerdotal statues obviously caring protects against penetration of non-Roman elements. Augustus’ statues depicting him as a great chief priest (pontiff) and supreme commander complete the line of development of such statues of the late republic as togatus and commander, and at the same time denote new plastic possibilities and prospects of portraiture empire.

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Similarly to the monument from the Prima Porta, the statue of Augustus-priest retained some traces of paint. As in other marble sculptures of the early empire, the head and the toga thrown over it were made separately from the body. The open part of the neck was a single entity with the head. In turn, the neck was inserted into a recess in the top of the shoulders, and the seams were carefully camouflaged. The given technique allowed sculptors to use marbles frugally since during the reign of Augustus marble was particularly appreciated.

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