Augustus of Prima Porta
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Augustus of Prima Porta
Augustus of Prima Porta
Year1st century AD
TypeWhite marble
LocationVatican Museums, Rome

Augustus of Prima Porta (Italian: Augusto di Prima Porta) is a full-length portrait statue of Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of the Roman Empire. The marble statue stands 2.08 meters tall and weighs 1,000 kg. The statue was discovered on April 20, 1863 at the villa suburbana (Villa of Livia) owned by Augustus' third wife, Livia Drusilla in Prima Porta, near Rome. Livia had retired to the villa after Augustus's death in AD 14. Carved by expert Greek sculptors, the statue is assumed to be a copy of a lost bronze original displayed in Rome. The Augustus of Prima Porta is now displayed in the Braccio Nuovo (New Arm) of the Vatican Museums.


The imagery on the leather cuirass refers to the Parthian restitution of the Roman eagles, or insignia, in 20 BC, one of Augustus' most significant diplomatic accomplishments. The date of the (hypothetical) bronze original is therefore later than 20 BC. The fact that Augustus is depicted barefooted, a convention signifying divinity, indicates the original was created after his apotheosis in AD 14. The date of the marble copy would presumably fall between that date and Livia's death in AD 29.

The statue might have been commissioned by Tiberius, the son of Livia and successor to Augustus. This hypothesis is based on the fact that Tiberius, who served as an intermediary in the recovery of the eagles, is also depicted on the cuirass. As this act was the greatest service he had performed for Augustus, the breastplate imagery would remind viewers of Tiberius's connection to the deified emperor and suggest continuity between both reigns.


Augustus is shown in this role of "Imperator", the commander of the army, as thoracatus --or commander-in-chief of the Roman army (literally, thorax-wearer)--meaning the statue should form part of a commemorative monument to his latest victories; he is in military clothing, carrying a consular baton and raising his right hand in a rhetorical adlocutio pose, addressing the troops. The bas-reliefs on his armored cuirass have a complex allegorical and political agenda, alluding to diverse Roman deities, including Mars, god of war, as well as the personifications of the latest territories he conquered: Hispania, Gaul, Germania, Parthia (that had humiliated Crassus, and here appears in the act of returning the standards captured from his legions); at the top, the chariot of the Sun illuminates Augustus's deeds.

The statue is an idealized image of Augustus showing a standard pose of a Roman orator[1] and based on the 5th-century BC statue of the Spear Bearer or Doryphoros by the sculptor Polykleitos. The Doryphoros's contrapposto stance, creating diagonals between tense and relaxed limbs, a feature typical of classical sculpture, is adapted here. The pose of the statue's legs is similar to Doryphoros. The right leg is taut, while the left leg is relaxed, as if the statue is moving forward.[2] The misidentification of the Doryphoros in the Roman period as representing the warrior Achilles made the model all the more appropriate for this image.[3] Despite the Republican influence in the portrait head, the overall style is closer to Hellenistic idealization than to the realism of Roman portraiture. The reason for this style shift is the acquisition of Greek art. Following each conquest, the Romans brought back large amounts of Greek art. This flow of Greek artifacts changes Romans' aesthetic tastes; and these art pieces were regarded as a symbol of wealth and status for the Roman upper class.[4]

Despite the accuracy with which Augustus' features are depicted (with his somber look and characteristic fringe), the distant and tranquil expression of his face has been idealized, as have the conventional contrapposto, the anatomical proportions and the deeply draped paludamentum or "cloth of the commander". On the other hand, Augustus's barefootedness and the inclusion of Cupid riding a dolphin as structural support for the statue reveals his mythical connection to the goddess Venus (Cupid's mother) by way of his adopted father Julius Caesar. The clear Greek inspiration in style and symbol for official sculptural portraits, which under the Roman emperors became instruments of governmental propaganda, is a central part of the Augustan ideological campaign, a shift from the Roman Republican era iconography where old and wise features were seen as symbols of solemn character. Therefore, the Prima Porta statue marks a conscious reversal of iconography to the Greek classical and Hellenistic period, in which youth and strength were valued as signs of leadership, emulating heroes and culminating in Alexander the Great himself. Such a statue's political function was very obvious--to show Rome that the emperor Augustus was an exceptional figure, comparable to the heroes worthy of being raised to divine status on Olympus, and the best man to govern Rome.


Painted replica of Augustus of Prima Porta statue prepared for the Tarraco Viva 2014 Festival.

It is almost certain that the Augustus was originally painted, but so few traces remain today (having been lost in the ground and having faded since discovery) that historians have had to fall back on old watercolors and new scientific investigations for evidence. Vincenz Brinkmann of Munich researched the use of color on ancient sculpture in the 1980s using ultraviolet rays to find traces of color.[5]

Today, the Vatican Museums have produced a copy of the statue so as to paint it in the theorized original colors, as confirmed when the statue was cleaned in 1999.[6] However, an art historian of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, Fabio Barry, has criticized this reconstitution as unsubtle and exaggerated.[7] There are many notable differences between the original Prima Porta of Augustus and the painted recreation.[8] However, due to the ongoing disagreement on the statue's pigmentation there is little information or exploration on the usage of these colors.[8][9] Another copy was painted with a different color scheme for the Tarraco Viva 2014 Festival.

Since at least the 18th century, the familiar sight of Roman sculptures that lack their original paint has encouraged the idea that monochromy is the natural condition for classical sculpture;[10] but surface treatment is now recognized as an integral to the overall effect of the sculpture.[11][12]

The writings of second-century polymath Lucian provide a good example of how color functioned for a work of that time, "I Fear I stand in the way of her most important feature!... the rest of the body let Apelles represent.. not too white but diffused with blood."[13] The quote continues to state that a statue of the time is unfinished without its "chora"--skin--or layer, applied to the statue to render it complete.[8][13] The specific implications of each color chosen for the Prima Porta is unknown; assumedly red for royalty.[8][14][15]


Detail of the breastplate


The haircut is made up of divided, thick strands of hair, with a strand directly over the middle of Augustus's forehead framed by other strands over it. From the left two strands stray onto the forehead, and from the right three strands, a hairstyle first found on this statue. This hairstyle also marks this statue out as Augustus from comparison with his portrait on his coinage, which can also give a date to it.[16] This particular hairstyle is used as the first sign identifying this portrait type of Augustus as the Prima Porta type, the second and most popular of three official portrait types: other hairstyles of Augustus may be seen on the Ara Pacis, for example. Another full-size statue of Augustus with these "Primaporta type" features is the Augustus of Via Labicana, portraying Augustus in the role of Pontifex Maximus, now in the Museo Nazionale Romano.

The face is idealized, but not as those of Polykleitos' statues. Augustus's face is not smoothed and shows details to indicate the individual features of Augustus.[17] Art underwent important changes during Augustus's reign, with the extreme realism that dominated the Republican era giving way to Greek influence, as seen in the portraits of the emperors - idealizations summarizing all the virtues that should be possessed by the exceptional man worthy of governing the Empire. In earlier portraits, Augustus allowed himself to be portrayed in monarchical fashion, but amended these with later more diplomatic images that represented him as "primus inter pares". The head and neck were produced separately in Parian marble and inserted to the torso.

Breastplate relief

The statue's iconography is frequently compared to that of the carmen saeculare by Horace, and commemorates Augustus's establishment of the Pax Romana. The breastplate is carved in relief with numerous small figures depicting the return, thanks to the diplomacy of Augustus, of the Roman legionary eagles or aquilae lost to Parthia by Mark Antony in the 40s BC and by Crassus in 53 BC.[18]

The figure in the centre, according to the most common interpretation, is the subjected Parthian king returning Crassus's standard to an armored Roman (possibly Tiberius, or symbolically Mars Ultor).[19] This was a very popular subject in Augustan propaganda, as one of his greatest international successes, and had to be especially strongly emphasized, since Augustus had been deterred by Parthian military strength from the war which the Roman people had expected and had instead opted for diplomacy. To the left and right sit mourning female figures. A figure to one side with a sheathed sword personifies the peoples in the East (and possibly the Teutons) forced to pay tribute to Rome, and one on the other side with an unsheathed sword obviously personifies the subjected peoples (the Celts). From the top, clockwise, we see:

  • Caelus, the sky god, spreading the tent of the sky[20]
  • Aurora and Luna
  • the personification of the subjected peoples
  • the goddess Diana
  • the earth goddess Ceres/Tellus - similarly represented on the Ara Pacis
  • Apollo, Augustus's patron
  • the personification of the tributary peoples
  • the sun god Sol
  • a Sphinx on each shoulder, representing the defeat of Cleopatra by Augustus

Interestingly, the cuirass is not solely frontal; there is a backside to the armor as well. On the bottom right side of the back of the cuirass, there is a helmeted trophy with a wing above, a carnyx on the left hip, and greaves against a tree trunk. There was an iron peg that is thought to have connected the statue to a wall. This is likely due to the back being unfinished [21]

None of these interpretations are undisputed.[] The gods, however, probably all symbolize the continuity and logical consistency of the events - just as the sun and moon forever rise, so Roman successes are certain and divinely sanctioned. Furthermore, these successes are connected with the wearer of this breastplate, Augustus. The only active person is the Parthian king, implying that everything else is divinely desired and ordained.

Divine status

During his lifetime, Augustus did not wish to be depicted as a god (unlike the later emperors who embraced divinity), but this statue has many thinly-veiled references to the emperor's "divine nature", his genius. Augustus is shown barefoot, which indicates that he is a hero and perhaps even a divus,[22] and also adds a civilian aspect to an otherwise military portrait. Being barefoot was only previously allowed on images of the gods, but it may[] also imply that the statue is a posthumous copy set up by Livia of a statue from the city of Rome in which Augustus was not barefoot.

The small Cupid (son of Venus) at his feet (riding on a dolphin, Venus's patron animal) is a reference to the claim that the Julian family were descended from the goddess Venus, made by both Augustus and by his great uncle Julius Caesar - a way of claiming divine lineage without claiming the full divine status.[23] The dolphin which Cupid rides has a political significance.  It suggests that Augustus has won the battle of Actium and defeated one of his primary rivals, Mark Antony.[24]  


The Prima Porta-type of statues of Augustus became the prevailing representational style for him, copied full-length and in busts in various versions found throughout the empire up until his death in 14. The copies never showed Augustus looking older, however, but represented him as forever young, in line with his propaganda goals. His propaganda goals aim to display the authority of the Roman emperors through conventional styles and stories of the culture.[1]


  1. ^ a b Stokstad, Marilyn (2017-01-06). Art History (6th ed.). Pearson Education, Inc. p. 175. ISBN 9780134475882.
  2. ^ "Augustus of Prima Porta". Retrieved .
  3. ^ John Pollini, "The Augustus from Prima Porta and the Transformation of the Polykleitan Heroic Ideal", in Warren G. Moon (ed.), Polykleitos, the Doryphoros and Tradition. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press) 1995, analyses the cultural significance of unmistakable Polykleitan features in the Prima Porta Augustus, presented in aemulatio as the successor to heroic Polykleitan portrayals of Alexander the Great.
  4. ^ Favro, Diane. "Rome, ancient". Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000073405 (inactive 2019-08-20).
  5. ^ BRADLEY, MARK (June 2009). "The Importance of Colour on Ancient Marble Sculpture". Art History. 32 (3): 427-457. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8365.2009.00666.x. ISSN 0141-6790.
  6. ^ It can be viewed here
  7. ^ The Washington Post, "Augustus of Prima Porta", May 4, 2008
  8. ^ a b c d Bradley, Mark (2009-06-01). "The Importance of Colour on Ancient Marble Sculpture". Art History. 32 (3): 427-457. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8365.2009.00666.x. ISSN 1467-8365.
  9. ^ Shneider, Rolf (1986). Brute barberton worms. Marilda De Nucqi.
  10. ^ Hägele, H. (2013). Colour in Sculpture: A Survey from Ancient Mesopotamia to the Present. pp. 252-254.
  11. ^ Bradley (2009). "Colour Meaning". Cambridge.
  12. ^ Palagia, Olga (2006). "Greek sculpture". Function, Materials, and Techniques in the Archaic and Classical Periods.
  13. ^ a b Gassino, Issabell. Voir et Savoir: les difficultes de la connaissance Chez Lucien.
  14. ^ Ridgway. Prayers in Stone. pp. 107-8.
  15. ^ Herman, Phelps (1930). Die Farbige Achitektur bei den Romern und in Mittelalter. Berlin.
  16. ^ Coins were one of the most effective ways of spreading propaganda, such as news of decisive battles and changes of ruler, because on such occasions new coins would be minted.
  17. ^ Stokstad, Marilyn (2017-01-08). Art History Vol.1. Pearson Education. p. 175. ISBN 9780134479279.
  18. ^ Squire, Michael (April 1, 2013). "Embodied Ambiguities on the Prima Porta Augustus". Art History. 36 (2): 242-279. doi:10.1111/1467-8365.12007.
  19. ^ Kleiner, Diana (1992). Roman Sculpture. Yale University Press. p. 67. ISBN 0300046316.
  20. ^ William E. Dunstan, (2010) Ancient Rome. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, p. 260. ISBN 0742568342
  21. ^ Ingholt, Harold (Summer 1969). "The Prima Porta Statue of Augustus". Archaeology. 22 (3): 177-187. JSTOR 41667995.
  22. ^ Kleiner, Diana (1992). Roman Sculpture. Yale University Press. p. 67.
  23. ^ Janson, H.W. (1995) History of Art. 5th edn. Revised and expanded by Anthony F. Janson. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 191. ISBN 0500237018
  24. ^ Kleiner, Diana (1992). Roman Sculpture. Yale University Press. p. 65. ISBN 0300046316.

Further reading

In German
  • Heinz Kähler: Die Augustusstatue von Primaporta. Köln 1959.
  • Erika Simon: Der Augustus von Prima Porta. Bremen, Dorn 1959. (Opus nobile 13)
  • Hans Jucker: Dokumentationen zur Augustusstatue von Primaporta, in: Hefte des Archäologischen Seminars Bern 3 (1977) S. 16-37.
  • Paul Zanker: Augustus und die Macht der Bilder. München, C. H. Beck 1987, ISBN 3-406-32067-8
  • Kaiser Augustus und die verlorene Republik, Ausstellung Berlin 1988. Mainz, Zabern 1988. S. 386 f. Nr. 215.
  • Erika Simon: Altes und Neues zur Statue des Augustus von Primaporta, in: G. Binder (Hrsg.), Saeculum Augustum, Bd. 3, Darmstadt, WBG 1991, S. 204-233.
  • Dietrich Boschung: Die Bildnisse des Augustus, Gebr. Mann Verlag, Berlin 1993 (Das römische Herrscherbild, Abt. 1, Bd. 2) ISBN 3-7861-1695-4
  • Thomas Schäfer: Der Augustus von Primaporta im Wechsel der Medien, in: H. J. Wendel u.a. (Hrsg.), Wechsel des Mediums. Zur Interdependenz von Form und Inhalt, Rostock 2001, S. 37-58.
  • Vinzenz Brinkmann und Raimund Wünsche (eds.): Bunte Götter. Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur. Eine Ausstellung der Staatlichen Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München in Zusammenarbeit mit der Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Kopenhagen und den Vatikanischen Museen, Rom, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, München 2004 ISBN 3-933200-08-3.

External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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