In this ongoing series, Fine Art Today delves into the world of portraiture, highlighting historical and contemporary examples of superb quality and skill. This week we delve into a propagandistic portrait of arguably Rome’s greatest Emperor.
When learning the history of art, there are literally thousands of artworks worthy of extended discussion. Despite this fact, there exists a select pantheon of objects from the Prehistoric period through modern times that, simply put, can never be overlooked. This week’s feature portrait just happens to be one of them.
When Julius Caesar was brutally assassinated on March 15, 44 BCE, it was the climax of a dark period in the Republic’s storied history. Society was in disarray, and the government was rife with corruption. Fast forward to 14 CE — some 58 years later — and the scene couldn’t have been more different. The newly established Roman Empire was flourishing, reaching new economic and military heights that, as it would happen, would never be reached again.
This sudden rebirth of Rome is largely credited to its beloved emperor, a man named Gaius Octavius (63BCE-14CE), who politically negotiated a peace treaty — called the Pax Romana — that allowed the economy and arts to explode. Further, Octavius ordered numerous infrastructural improvements throughout the empire, elevating the quality of life for millions, and they loved him for it.
As should come as no surprise, much art and architecture was commissioned to serve this beneficent emperor, both publicly and privately. “The Prima Porta Augustus” — as it is called — is a remarkable idealistic portrait of Octavius, likely produced in multitudes and displayed prominently in public areas. Particularly fascinating is how carefully constructed Octavius’ portrait was. An investigation of the portrait’s imagery reveals a life of its own.
To begin, the sculpture was produced toward the end of Octavius’ life, as he neared age 80, but the portrait is that of a beardless youth, in the prime of his physical might. Further, he stands in full military dress, his right arm raised as if poised to direct his people or army. In his left arm rests his spear and cloak. Octavius’ stance is significant — it’s a direct copy of the “Doryphorous,” a famed sculpture from Classical Greece by Polykleitos. The Doryphorous represented for the Greeks perfect human form based on mathematical ratio, and Octavius, in quoting this sculpture, inherits these qualities while connecting his empire to Greece’s glorious past.
Other imagery on the sculpture provides similar propaganda. The artificial support that braces his right leg is sculpted to show the winged child Eros (commonly known as Cupid), riding the back of a diving dolphin. Venus, the mother of Eros, was also the mother of Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome. Scholars believe the baby’s inclusion was meant to subtly legitimize Octavius’ claim to the throne through blood. The dolphin is less clear, perhaps alluding to the Battle of Actium, a fantastic naval conflict in which Octavius defeated Mark Antony to secure his position as leader. Other imagery exists on the breastplate of Octavius, commemorating his Pax Romana and celebrating the wealth and abundance his various exploits and victories had brought to the empire.
Today, the sculpture is held by the Vatican Museums in Rome and remains one of the most iconic and important artworks to have survived over the centuries.
This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.