Augustus of Prima Porta

Augustus the Divine

by Josh Ford

A great leader can be be many things and do many things, but few if any could call themselves worthy enough to stand next to Augustus. Starting when he was only nineteen years old, he built a powerful army through his own self motivation as well as his own money. So, needless to say, he had quite a large following. Well, it was large enough that there were several monuments made for him like Augustus of Primaporta which is the particular work of focus for this discussion. The purpose is to investigate the object and how the style reflects upon the time period while also to explore Augustus’ power and how it was shown through art.

First off, I will start with a formal analysis of the object.  Augustus of Primaporta, which now sits in the Vatican Museum, is a white marble sculpture of a strong and handsome young man in his armor. From the frontal view, a very detailed scene plays out upon his breastplate. He is standing with his right foot forward and his left foot slightly lifted of the behind him. He is pointing upward and to his right with his right hand as if he were pointing to  the land he must now take over. His pointing hand is not balled into a fist but rather slightly opened and relaxed as if he were making a friendly and calm gesture. Augustus has an intent and focused look on his face shown by his furrowed brow and hard almost emotionless lips.

His outfit is very detailed and dramatic with high contrast from the deeply carved features and accessories like the ruffled sleeves that protrude from beneath his armor. Even more contrast of light and dark is seen in the cloth he has wrapped around his waist and left arm. The folds are highly worked to create deep spaces between the folds. Underneath the fantastically carved folds of the draped cloth falls the bottom portion of his garb which would be close to what we call skirts today, but looks very manly on Augustus. To the lower right side of Augustus is a knee high little angel that may be Cupid. There have been many copies of this particular statue and in some cases he holds a staff and sometimes is painted in very bright colors.

Sculpted in the period of Imperial Rome the style of the sculpture is not unlike other statues of the time. Shown in military clothing and carrying a baton and addressing what we can assume would be his troops, fits with the style of other leaders’ statues we have seen. The statue is obviously an idealization of Augustus for he is shown at a very youthful age and at the time this was created he would have been much older even dead. However, Augustus was the founder of the Roman Empire and the first Emperor of Rome so he could have been shown any way he pleased. Also, the forever young representation of Augustus shows that he will always have power and fits in perfectly with his propaganda goals. Powerful enough to destroy empires and take their lands, Augustus certainly had the respect to have such a statue made of him and placed in the city for all to see. It was dedicated to Augustus and placed in a public space which coincides with the political beliefs. Political figures were often publicly praised at the time.

An extremely interesting account was made in a historical document called Res Gestae Divi Augusti. Written by the hand of Augustus this account lists many great feats accomplished by the powerful ruler. Translated into English the title reads The Deeds of the Divine Augusti in which he starts by recalling a seemingly impossible task for today’s standards. “In my nineteenth year, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army with which I set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction” (Augustus translated by Thomas Bushnell, under “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus”).  Afterwards he was made consul and was charged with the deed of settling the state. His power was already great, but he was just getting started. He goes on to state that he avenged his father’s death by driving out the men who killed his father and forced them into exile. He punished their crime and then they brought on a war in which Augustus “conquered them in two battles” (Bushnell). Keep in mind that he is still very young at this time. This sounds like Augustus was ruthless but he was fair. As to speak of foreign nations Augustus stated that he would prefer to preserve than to destroy. This would be the case if he could forgive the nation while not in fear of his or his people’s safety of course. Fair I would say is an accurate word for the man.

Although the artist is unknown, the statue is dated  to the First Century A.D. It was discovered exactly 152 years ago on April 20, 1863 in the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta. Livia was Augustus’ wife who retired at the villa after his death. Along with this statue, which is very famous around the world, the villa was also the place of discovery for another exemplar of their type. I am speaking of the garden paintings found in the underground complex of the villa. As part of Jane Clark Reeder’s excerpt from the American Journal of Philology, who in an attempt to “illuminate the symbolic interrelationships between this augural imagery and the iconography of three features of the art and architecture of the villa-garden,” she expresses that “imagery and symbolism played an essential role not only in the decoration of the villa, but formed an important part of Augustan ideology ” ( Reeder 89-118).  Such ideology was not uncommon for the statues made around this time. The statue of Augustus can be closely compared with statues like Doryphoros and Apollo. “Since one knows how important the laurel was as an age-old symbol of Apollo and as a new emblem of Augustus and since one is aware how pervasive the Apollonian propaganda became in Augustan ideology, it is no wonder that H. Kähler (1959, 12-13; 28; pl. 32) found the laurel integral to the sacral character of the statue’s image and hence restored the laurel branch in the hand of Augustus on the statue from Prima Porta.” (Reeder). Reeder also goes on to say that there is a connection with the laurel and idea of triumph for Augustus.

Some may look at Augustus of Primaporta and say that it has a Polykleitan look or a Polykleitan style. It is definitely similar to Polykleitos’ Doryphoros. Perhaps if Doryphoros had armor or at least some clothing on, he would look almost identical to Augustus of Primaporta. Polykleitos had a very recognizable style to say the least. “It is really the Canon, then, and its illustration in the Doryphoros, that makes us think of Polykleitos as a distinctive, unusual, and important artist” (J.J. Pollitt 2).  The stance of the two statues by looking at their feet are the same. The way they both stand with their hips slightly dropping to one side and one foot raised in the back is eerily similar. The contrapposto technique is the same in the way their body is positioned. Doryphoros’  stance might be a little more dramatic, but perhaps this is because he has no clothes and you can see every bend in his body.

As I stated earlier, this Augustus of Prima Porta statue is most likely a copy of the original. The original sculpture which was “ probably constructed in 20 B.C. to celebrate Augustus’ victory over the Parthians” (Karl Galinsky, under Augustan Culture). “ The Parthian empire dominated Central Asia and was a formidable power against Roman rule” (Edward Hopkins). The Parthians were a powerful adversary and were worthy of the great monument to symbolize Roman victory over them. The Romans fought the Parthians three times and lost. Humiliation was a driving factor for Julius Caesar to reclaim Rome, however his assassination cut his war efforts short. Augustus was able to do what his predecessor could not. After thirty years under Parthian Rule “ He incorporated Armenia into the Roman Empire as a client kingdom” (Galinsky). “Because Armenia ‘s geographic location, Rome gained a valuable offensive position against the Parthians” until the Parthian king requested a truce from Augustus and order was restored to Rome (Galinsky). So this was a major victory for Augustus to have done something that another Roman ruler died trying to do. To restore the Roman standard is plenty a reason to have a statue made for your savior and put into the middle of town. Augustus certainly deserved it.

“I was triumvir for the settling of the state for ten continuous years. I was first of the senate up to that day on which I wrote this, for forty years. I was high priest, augur, one of the Fifteen for the performance of rites, one of the Seven of the sacred feasts, brother of Arvis, fellow of Titus, and Fetial” (Bushnell).  Augustus held many title and did many jobs for the people of his country which is why they thought he was a great leader and why we have so many art works of him. He was a powerful man and could be very influential but that does not mean he wanted to always be in charge. “When the dictatorship was offered to me, both in my presence and my absence, by the people and senate, when Marcus Marcellus and Lucius Arruntius were consuls (22 B.C.E.), I did not accept it” (Bushnell). He spoke loudly with his actions for he was seemingly a selfless person who just wanted to help the greater good of the people. He lived for the cause. What more could a civilization ask of their leader?

The artist of this amazing sculpture must have been a brilliant mind to create this image of such an important figure. Is it possible he had help from another source? Louise Adams Holland suggested that the sculpture’s design was inspired by a passage in the Aeneid.  Virgil, the author of Aeneid, wrote the story of Aeneas, a trojan who went to Italy where he became the ancestor of the Romans. This could be a perfect model for a near perfect ruler. If it is true that Augustus’ statue was modeled after a description in the Aeneid, then there may be even more of reason to believe that whoever the artist was, he was an educated man.

It is not just power that is on display with Augustus of Primaporta,  but also a sense of national pride is present. Being compared or modeled after the ancestor of all romans is quite a compliment. It is safe to say that there were some admirers of Augustus. He definitely has a historical significance for Rome and a great deal of the world around it. He served as Emperor of Rome from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. when he died. He had a long and very eventful time as a ruler. He was dedicated to the country he called home. He was dedicated to the people who shared it as well. Augustus reported millions even billions of units of his own money going to various Roman causes. “I paid out rewards in cash to the soldiers whom I had led into their towns when their service was completed, and in this venture I spent about HS 400,000,000” (Bushnell). HS 260,000,000 was reportedly spent on provincial fields. He was a wealthy man but also a very generous one. He is incomparable to any man of power today. It is hard to even try to think of a leader or any man otherwise that would make some of the sacrifices Augustus made for his country. His great power was only part of the reason we have so much evidence of his life.

The money he paid out was also just a small part of what made him great. There are few men throughout history that made as big of an impact on the world as he did as young as he did. His career began when he was a teenager and lasted until his death. Augustus accomplished things before he was twenty-five years old to which other ruler could not grasp in their lifetime. “I built the senate-house and the Chalcidicum which adjoins it and the temple of Apollo on the Palatine with porticos, the temple of divine Julius, the Lupercal, the portico at the Flaminian circus” (Bushnell). He also built the Capitol and the theatre of Pompey which were both tremendously expensive. He always kept himself busy with such projects that it is hard to think of what a life he could have outside of his work.

Augustus of Primaporta is a strong and powerful piece of art, but can it come close to the power of his legacy? I think it can, in fact, it is the perfect example of a masterpiece for the artist and the model. The strength of the image will forever stay with me and will always serve as a comparison for the image of any great ruler. Although, I predict that few images can compare to the execution of this marble sculpture. The style and the technique may be replicated but the ideas that fueled the creation of this marvelous piece of art will never be. To close, the title of this paper is such because I think people genuinely seen his as divine or at least I can understand their reason why they would given his reputation.


Works Cited


Holland, Louise Adams. “Aeneas-Augustus of Prima Porta.” In Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, pp. 276-284. American Philological Association, 1947.


Hopkins, Edward. “” (2005).<> Accessed October 2005.


Galinsky, Karl. Augustan Culture. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.


Pollitt, Jerome J. “The Canon of Polykleitos and other canons.” Polykleitos, the Doryphoros, and Tradition (1995): 19-24.


Reeder, Jane Clark. “The statue of Augustus from Prima Porta, the underground complex, and the omen of the gallina alba.” American Journal of Philology 118, no. 1 (1997): 89-118.


Augustus, Emperor, and Thomas Bushnell. “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.” (1998).


Note: The last citation was the primary historical document.


Image Citation