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The Augustus of Prima Porta

Updated on May 29, 2011
Augustus of Prima Porta
Augustus of Prima Porta

Discovered in 1863 in a villa purportedly belonging to Augustus's wife Livia at Prima Porta, the statue of the emperor Augustus is one of the most well-known, as well as enigmatic, works of art from the Augustan era. At almost seven feet tall, the statue portrays Augustus in the prime of his life, standing heroically and covered in an intricately-carved cuirass, replete with symbolism. His stance, as well as the general style, is in the same vein as that of the Doryphoros, or spear-bearer, made in the 5th century by the Greek sculptor Polyclitus.

The Augustus of Prima Porta was carved to commemorate Augustus's diplomatic victory over the Parthians in 20 BC, which meant the return of the military standards which had been captured from the Roman general Crassus in 53 BC. The artist of the statue is unknown, but it is generally agreed upon that the statue is a marble copy, carved in 15 AD, from a bronze original made soon after Augustus's victory. A more meticulous view of the statue though, reveals a whole host of differing opinions and interpretations concerning the symbolism, and the subsequent propaganda, it was intended to convey.

Symbolism, symbolism, symbolism

The two main components of the Augustus portrait I would like to focus on in this hub are the statuary support of Cupid atop a dolphin and the meaning of the cuirass images (specifically the two main, centrally placed figures). An interesting realization I have made in my research, as well as somewhat frustrating, is that one can read eight different books and practically find eight different interpretations concerning these two components. Ultimately, the certainty behind these enigmas is, unfortunately, lost to time. Nevertheless, the debates continue, and my own opinion concerning the matter has yet to be substantially cemented in any one direction.

Note the cupid-like statuary support
Note the cupid-like statuary support

The Statuary Support

Of the aforementioned possibilities, this is probably the least debated. There are however, varying opinions concerning the identity of the "Cupid," and the significance of the dolphin.

In Roman mythology, Cupid was the son of Venus. This then implies the claim of divine ancestry held by Augustus, through the Julian family to Aeneas, founder of Italy, and Venus. The dolphin too, indicates divine lineage, as it was the standard statuary support for Hellenistic Aphrodite statues. Beyond the implications of divinity though, the support may also be a reference to Augustus's naval victory at Actium in 31 BC. It has been pointed out though, that the facial features of the Cupid do not coincide with a stylized representation of him, but rather, through a misshapen cranium and specific facial features, imply an individual person. If one assumes the date of the Augustus statue to be early, that is, soon after the retrieval of the standards in 20 BC, then a possible guess as to the identity of the Cupid would be Gauis Caesar, son of Augustus's daughter Julia and her husband Agrippa. A passage from Suetonius lends credence to this theory:

"...who bore him nine children. Two of these were taken off when they were still in infancy, and one just as he was reaching the age of boyhood, a charming child, whose statue, in the guise of Cupid, Livia dedicated in the temple of the Capitoline Venus, while Augustus had another placed in his bedchamber and used to kiss it fondly whenever he entered the room."

But, as the passage indicates, the grandchild who Livia and Augustus so cherished as to have immortalized through statuary, was deceased. It was common in the Roman world at this time for Cupids to represent the souls of infants who had died. So a representation of a living grandchild as a Cupid support on the statue would have been highly unlikely. The likeliest theory as to his identity would be another Gaius, Gaius Caesar's older brother, who died in 12 AD. This helps lend support for a later date for the Augustus, since no living relative of Augustus would be represented in such a manner. It would have been bad luck.

The Cuirass or Breastplate

The central scene of Augustus's breastplate, of the returning of the Roman standards, remains fairly disagreed upon. The figure to the right, in baggy trousers with beard and disheveled hair is certainly a Parthian, and most likely a particular Parthian: Phraates IV, king of Parthia with whom Augustus reached a treaty for the return of Roman prisoners and the standards. The figure on the left though, has been interpreted as various persons. Tiberius, Augustus, Mars, Aeneas, Romulus and the personification of the Roman army are all possible candidates. Tiberius seems likely, as he personally carried out the campaign to retrieve the standards. Also, it was Tiberius who commissioned the statue in honor of Augustus.

Detail of the cuirass
Detail of the cuirass
The god Mars Ultor
The god Mars Ultor

Aeneas or Mars Ultor?

An interesting argument favoring a connection between the statue and Aeneas was raised some years ago by Louise Adams Holland. Holland cites particular passages in Virgil's Aeneid as proof of a direct and intentional connection between the statue's symbolism and the heroic Aeneas. In book 12 of Aeneid , there is indeed a description, albeit somewhat general, of Aeneas which coincides with the Augustus statue:

But steadfast Aeneas, head bare, stood

Stretching out his unarmed hand and calling

In a loud voice to his men...

It is also to the Aeneid that Holland looks to identify the Roman figure opposite Phraates. In book 8, Virgil describes in great detail the shield of Aeneas, which, like Augustus's cuirass, is ornately decorated with mythical and historical scenes. The description of specific individuals adorning the shield seems to indicate to Holland that a similar pattern would be applied to the cuirass.

"The actors in the scenes on the shield are definite individuals-Lars Porsenna, Catiline, Augustus, Agrippa, etc. In conformity with this, the figures of the Roman and Parthian should be...not the god Mars and an abstract Parthia, but literally the king Phraates and a Roman general. Logically this last should be Augustus himself, who is surely the focus of this scene as he is of the battle of Actium on the shield."

This is, in my estimation, a somewhat weak argument. Firstly, Virgil wasn't describing a breastplate, rather a shield, which seems to render the argument baseless. Secondly, why wouldn't Augustus's divinity or heroism (as a connection to Aeneas) be doubly represented on the cuirass, by showing him bare-footed?

Concerning his possible identity as the god Mars Ultor, this theory seems highly unlikely simply because he does not look like Mars Ultor as depicted during this time, specifically in the temple of Mars Ultor which Augustus had built to commemorate the defeat of Julius Caesar's assassins. The helmet-less, clean-shaven Roman on the cuirass hardly resembles the bearded image of Mars Ultor, adorned with an imposing plumed helmet. It is little wonder that this is not the most popular theory as to the figure's identity.

The Roman Army?

Could this figure be the personification of the Roman army? It is a strong possibility, but given the abundance of specific representations surrounding the figure (Phraates IV, Apollo, Diana, the sun god Sol and the moon goddess Luna), why would this figure be an exception? For various reasons, I believe the figure to be that of Tiberius. There is a strong possibility that the event depicted on the cuirass, that of Phraates handing the standard to Tiberius, literally happened. Tiberius, at the age of twenty-one, was given the responsibility of disposing of the current king of Armenia and replacing him with another. This proved to be an easy task, as the current king had been killed before Tiberius and his army even reached Armenia. Historian Robin Seager summarizes what happened next:

"He therefore entered the country without opposition and with his own hands placed the crown on Tigranes' head. Phraates, cowed by the presence of a Roman force, did not dispute the loss of Armenia, and the standards too were duly handed over, perhaps to Tiberius himself, on the banks of the Euphrates River."

Thus, in a purely historical context, the cuirass appears to be representative of actual events.

The strongest argument for Tiberius' inclusion in the breastplate scene though, is obvious. He himself commissioned the work in 15 AD. Since the cuirass work is believed to be too intricate for inclusion on the bronze original, this scene then was later added upon the marble version. Who better to represent the Roman army than the very man who received the standards?


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    • Mel Jay profile image

      Mel Jay 

      8 years ago from Australia

      Wow, what a great hub! I thoroughly enjoyed your work.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Awesome, informative post. Thanks so much for writing it. I'm a college student up late studying for an Art History exam. This definitely refueled the fire and reminded me why I love art.

    • profile image

      Rome Apartments 

      9 years ago

      Fascinating and beautiful artwork, would love to see the Bronze original.

    • Karen Ellis profile image

      Karen Ellis 

      10 years ago from Central Oregon

      This is very interesting. Thanks for the history lesson.

      One hint - it you put your comment box at the end of the page, we can make sure we've read the whole article. I almost thought it stopped here.


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