Emperor Augustus
(63 BCE - CE 14)
Augustus, view of right side of head Augustus, frontal image Augustus, view of left side of head Augustus, view of back side of head
(click image to view enlargement)
Last quarter of the first century B.C.

Commentary

Octavian (or Augustus, as he was called after 27 B.C.) was born in Rome in 63 B.C. His grandmother, Julia, was the sister of Julius Caesar; his mother, Atia, was Caesar's niece. After Caesar's assassination on the Ides of March, 44 B.C., Octavian, then only eighteen years old, was adopted as Caesar's son by the terms of his will. This meant that Octavian inherited much of his great-uncle's wealth as well as his prestige and power.

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 and Marc 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.


Notes

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).


Credits

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.

 

Back to the top