During the following thirteen years (from 44 to 31 B.C.) Octavian avenged
the murder of his "father" and cemented his control of Rome. This culminated
in the Battle of Actium (31 B.c.) at which his forces defeated those of Cleopatra
Antony, the former friend and ally who had betrayed Rome. In 27 B.C. he
was proclaimed Augustus and began the first and longest reign of any Roman
emperor, a term of 44 years.
Suetonius (Augustus 79) describes the emperor as
"remarkably handsome and of very graceful gait even as an old man;
but negligent of his personal appearance...eyes clear and
bright...teeth small, few and decayed; his hair, yellowish and rather
curly; his eyebrows met above the nose...with body and limbs so
beautifully proportioned, one did not realize how small a man he was,
unless someone tall stood close to him." Most of the more than 250
extant portraits of Augustus idealize him dramatically. The
unprecedented length of his reign, his popularity during his lifetime
and deification shortly after his death, plus the tendency of most
later emperors to identify with him are factors that guaranteed an
abundance of portraits of this man.
Scholars have divided the extant portraits into four basic types.1
The Riley Augustus belongs to the third type, the so-called "Prima
Porta Type," named after the well-known statue of the emperor discovered
at his country villa at Prima Porta, north of Rome. This statue, now in the
Vatican Museums, was probably created shortly after 27 B.C., but it continued
to inspire numerous copies and variations throughout the early empire and
represents the most popular of the four basic portrait types.
A distinctive feature of the Prima Porta Type is the configuration of locks across the forehead. These offer an important clue to understanding the Riley Augustus because they demonstrate that it is a reversed copy of the original type. But it is hardly a precise copy. Additional locks are placed over the right eye, and the face seems leaner and less idealized. The Romans often created reversals when they wanted to display statues in a symmetrical ("mirror-image") composition. It is uncertain how they intended to use this statue but, given the perfunctory treatment of the back of the head, it was probably placed against a wall in a niche. Another indication of this is the unusual absence of hair behind the left ear. This suggests that the optimum position for the head is a three-quarter view from the left.
Publications: A. Stähli in H. Jucker and D. Willers, Gesichter: Griechische und romische Bildnisse aus Schweizer Besitz (Bern 1982) no. 27; J. Eisenberg, Art of the Ancient World IV (New York 1985) no. 254.
1. For more on Augustan portraits, see S. Walker and A. Burnett, The Image of Augustus (London 1981); K. Vierneisel and P. Zanker, Die Bildnisse des Augustus (Munich 1979); E. Simon, Augustus. Kunst und Leben in Rom um die Zeitenwende (Munich 1986).
Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, The Tom and Nan Riley Collection, formerly in an English private collection. Copyright © 1997 Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. All rights reserved.
Photos by C. Randall Tosh, copyright © 1988 The University of Iowa Museum of Art. All rights reserved.
Text from Richard Daniel De Puma. Roman Portraits. Iowa City, IA: The University of Iowa, 1988. Copyright © 1988 The University of Iowa Museum of Art. All rights reserved.
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