Barefoot in Rome: The Political Iconography of the Prima Porta Augustus

I’ve been talking a lot about Egypt and Greece for the last month or so, I thought I’d circle back to Rome and talk about some more political art during the early imperial era. Specifically, we’re going to take a deeper look at the the Augustus of Prima Porta, the best-known of Octavius’ portraits and arguably the most famous original Roman statue in all of antiquity. Because aside from its artistic beauty, like the Ara Pacis, the Prima Porta Augustus is a complex piece of political propaganda meant to be read by an indifferently literate society and nothing about it is mere decoration. Hopefully I’ll be able to break it down for all of you in a way that will keep me from continuing to alienate the online Classical community by being either too Team Octavius or too sassy about him. But no promises…

[Maybe you should try staying in your lane, Scribbler, and leave the historical analysis to the Classicists…]
[You mean the people who mostly hate you? Good luck with that— at least I’m willing to work on making you look three-dimensional. Speaking of…]

The Prima Porta Augustus is — surprise! — a copy. The (alleged) original statue was a bronze believed to be commissioned by Octavius’ stepson and successor, Tiberius, relatively shortly after his elevation to the principate. The bronze was displayed in Rome, but had been lost long before the modern archeological period. The Prima Porta Augustus, a copy made in marble, was discovered in its eponymous town (about seven and a half miles north of Rome) in 1863 at a property thought to be a dower estate belonging to Octavius’ wife, Livia Drusilla.

The so-called Villa of Livia was Liv’s country seat, possessed of both a stunning elevated view of Tiber Valley towards Rome, as well as direct access to the Via Flaminia, one of the major thoroughfares to the city. The nearby town Prima Porta (literally, “First Door”) was named for the arch in the local aqueduct that crossed over the Via Flaminia, the aqueduct and the view of Livia’s estate being considered a traveler’s first signal that they were at last approaching Rome. The villa’s Latin name was Villa Ad Gallinas Albas, so named, according to Suetonius, for a particular breed of white chickens raised there.

Chickens have a special place in Liv’s personal mythos, for it was said that when she was hesitantly considering Octavius’ proposal, one that would require her to divorce her first husband and lose custody of her sons, an eagle dropped a hen with a laurel branch in its beak into her lap. The augurs analyzed this omen and determined that it was auspicious for the fortunes of the city’s future First Lady. Eagles, of course, being an ancient symbol of Rome, and laurels representing both victory and peace. Whether she liked it or not, the hen was likely supposed to represent Liv herself, no doubt meant to herald her as the mother of a plentiful imperial brood. While that part didn’t exactly work out for her and Octavius, she is the mother of Tiberius, the next emperor, and her place as the powerful queen mother goes unchallenged until her death in 29 AD and beyond, as she, like her husband, is deified upon her death as the Diva Augusta. 

[Almost makes you wonder if she wasn’t the eagle in that omen after all…]

The Villa of Livia is also known for a series of gorgeous garden frescoes that adorned its subterranean triclinium. As dining was where many of the Roman social and political wheels were greased, this almost-magical dining room, which was nearly otherwise unadorned in order to seamlessly transport guests into a sylvan gardenscape, was the perfect stage for Rome’s shrewdest woman to work he own magic on the empire’s elites. Remnants of planter pottery surrounding the entrance to this underground section of of the Villa have been postulated to have contained laurels, supposedly grown from that original hen-toted cutting. Either way, laurels have been thought to have been a significant part of the villa’s landscaping, both because of the omen and for their peaceful associations, because despite the rational evidence, Octavius was committed to portraying his rule as a coalition of the willing and not the result of one guy beating everyone else into submission.

[Fun fact: At least one historian has posited that the Garden Room served as a sort of safe room for Octavius, whom Suetonius delights in telling us was said to be afraid of thunderstorms and lightning especially. Suetonius in particular speaks of an “underground vaulted room” where Octavius would seclude himself during storms.]

Anyway, the villa was in enough disrepair when it was excavated that we’re not entirely sure where exactly Liv put up this statue of her late husband in her house. The most obvious location would be in the villa’s atrium, where Octavius could greet visitors as they entered the house, but a vocal minority of historians have argued for him being set up at the entrance to the Garden Room, where he would be on hand to welcome important visitors dining with Liv. This indecision on display location also informs a lively debate on what exactly Octavius is meant to be holding in his left hand, since the object was not recovered along with the statue. If he was in the atrium, it is thought he might have been holding a pilum, the Roman military spear, or the baton of state carried by a Roman consul. In the picture below, you can see the trace of a cylinder with a hole for something to be drilled into place, but that’s about it. However, if the statue’s place was outside the Garden Room, there is also a thought that he might have been holding laurels at one point or another. These could have been a separate marble piece that broke off at some point from the statue (much like Octavius’ right arm did at one point), or perhaps fresh laurel boughs from the estate were arranged around the pila or baton seasonally.

[ Close up of the statue’s left hand]

The statue itself is made of white marble, the head and neck of the highly-prized Parian marble of which the Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace are made of. Our word “marble” comes from the Greek marmaírō (μαρμαίρω), to flash or gleam, which speaks to marble’s semi-translucent surface that adds dimension and imitation-of-life depth to things sculpted from it. That said, the unearthly translucence that we are so fond of in ancient marble sculpture was for the most part hidden from its contemporary audience. Because, and I can’t stress this enough, ancient sculptures were in color.

[A Greek kore statue now]
[And then]

Unlike some sculptures where scientists and art historians have been able to detect trace pigments on the surface of the marble to reconstruct a particular piece’s color scheme, the colors on the Prima Porta Augustus are too indistinct to make an absolutely accurate reconstruction. Contention remains concerning details like the color of Octavius’ hair and the pigment choices for his cuirass, but several copies made by the Vatican Museum and several European municipalities have attempted painted versions of the statue that at least provide a feel for what the statue may have looked like when it graced the halls of the Villa of Livia. 

[Modern replica of the statue in Braga, Portugal.]

One detail that has provided more color consensus is Octavius’ paludamentum, the cloak around his waist that drapes over his left arm. The paludamentum was the cloak of a Roman commander that easily identified him on a battlefield. Like the toga stripes of eques and senators, it is usually described as “purple,” but Roman purple was a more reddish violet than a true purple, so this much more red-looking drape is more historically accurate than the alternative. His cuirass also marks him as a Roman commander— Octavius wears the single-piece molded-form lorica musculata, usually reserved for the high-ranking legates (commanders and generals) because it had to be fitted to a specific wearer’s body.

But more importantly, these are military trappings for the less-than-historically martial Octavius, meant to display his role as supreme commander of the Roman army, whether he took the field or not. This might sound like a vanity spin (and I’m sure there was some of that, too), but if we agree that it is Tiberius who commissioned this portrait, it also makes a lot of sense in terms of his sensibilities as well as those Octavius preferred to project throughout his life. Tiberius and his stepfather weren’t always on the same page, but the first two Roman emperors were the least imperial by temperament and ironically, this statue reflects that. Octavius never held himself out as a king (at least in Rome), so his statue, rather than showing him in a diadem and symbols of political power, instead depicts him in a much more acceptable cast of power and achievement for a Roman audience— that of a victorious general.

[A replica prepared for the Tarraco Viva 2014 Festival.]

Tiberius, who for most of his long reign would strive to maintain his predecessor’s first-among-equals stance, and who pined for the old Roman Republic way more than either Octavius or most of his contemporaries did, would also be disinclined to make the principate’s royal overtones more overt, either, even for a man who by the time of the statue’s creation would be held out as a god. But we’ll get to that part in a minute.

But the cuirass is also where one is greeted by a lot of the statue’s subtext. There’s a lot to unpack here, but at its heart, the cuirass is doing much of the same stuff that the Ara Pacis was trying to promote, that is, the Pax Roma. Octavius is dressed as a victorious general, but the central scene of the cuirass is one of diplomacy. The scene represents Octavius’ successful (and peaceful) negotiations with the kingdom of Parthia in 20 BC, represented by the shah of Parthia, Phraates IV (right), returning the legionary standards that Rome lost when Crassus, and later Mark Antony, experienced their separate debacles attempting to subdue this powerful Roman neighbor. A legion’s standards were the core of its identity and their capture always symbolized the shame of defeat, so conversely, their retrieval was always celebrated as a great symbolic victory.

[This won’t be the last time Rome loses their standards and their face, but that’s a story for another entry…]

Like most of the figures on the cuirass, there are some differences of opinion as to whom the Roman being presented with the standards is. He could be simply an idealized Roman soldier, accompanied at his feet by the Lupa Capitolina, the she-wolf who nursed Roman founders Romulus and Remus. But many historians believe it is supposed to be Tiberius himself, who was a part of the Parthian talks as well and may have used the allegorical cuirass-scape to both identify himself as the commissioner of the statue and to emphasize his place in the continuity of his stepfather’s empire.

The figure at the very top of the cuirass’ collar is thought to be Caelus, a primordial Roman sky god roughly equivalent with the Greek god Uranus, recognizable by his gesture of spreading the sky above his head. His motion shepherds our old friend Aurora driving the chariot of the sun across the sky, accompanied by auras (air nymphs) carrying her light-bringing torch and amphora of dew. Incidentally, while we’re up here, I’d like to draw you’re attention to the cuirass’ shoulder buckles, which depict two sphinxes, representing both Octavius’ victory over Egypt, and a personal symbol he used as a seal throughout his principate. Because somebody thought they were majestic and mysterious…

Underneath Tiberius and Phraates, you’ll find the goddess Pax, looking much as she did on the Ara Pacis, wearing laurels and holding a cornucopia indicating the plenty Rome has enjoyed because of this fortuitous peace. She’s flanked by Octavius’ personal favorite god, Apollo, on the left, riding a griffin or chimera of some kind, and Apollo’s sister, Diana (Artemis), on the right, riding a stag.

The two larger figures flanking the central scene are more obscure. Some historians believe that, like the Egyptian sphinxes, they are meant to represent other subjugated peoples of the Roman Empire. This is strengthen by the figure on the right, who does appear to be holding a Celtic carnyx, a wind instrument used by the Celts and the Gauls as a war trumpet. The figure on the left could represent the Germanic tribes, against whom Tiberius personally had a lot of success, but neither of these identifications are completely certain.

[A Iron Age carnyx]

Unlike most Roman statues, the cuirass is not entirely blank on its backside, either, which suggests either the alleged bronze original or this marble copy was meant to potentially be seen from all angles. However, the art on the back flap is less ornate and even more allegorical, leading some historians to conclude it might not have been fully completed. The back (of which I couldn’t find a good picture, sorry) shows a Roman military helmet crowned by a wing atop a trophy, another carnyx, and a pair of greaves leaning against a tree trunk. These mainly seem to be still more symbols of Rome’s successful military agenda, one that allows its soldiers to remove their greaves and reap the prosperity of peace.

Beneath the complicated message of the cuirass, we find that even Octavius’ tootsies are sending out an important signal to the Roman viewer. The first explanation I ever heard of Octavius’ conspicuous lack of footwear was that his barefootedness was meant to demonstrate his humility (snerk!). But bare feet also had a much wider significance in Roman art, where only the gods and heroes were depicted barefoot. This might have been a subtle way to support Octavius’ posthumous elevation to godhood as the Divus Augustus, while still portraying him as a humble, loyal son of the city. The putto barking at his heels is mostly there for structural support, but it is also specifically Cupid, who, like Octavius and Julii, is a son of the goddess Venus. This cherubic reminder of the Julii’s connection to a literal deity helps bolster Octavius’ new divine status as much as it bolsters his sculpted Achilles’ tendon.

To finish up by bouncing back up to the statue’s head, this particular facial portrait of Octavius became the go-to representation for him. While it is definitely idealized and aims to flatter, it is still a portrait Romans would have recognized as him. It retains enough of Octavius’ narrow facial structure, not to mention his slightly protruding ears, that you can’t mistake him for another god. Which is important in this period of history, where Octavius’ personal divine cult is just getting off the ground. And if you take away only one thing from this entire discussion, it should be that he and the emperors that followed him were acutely aware of how to market the imperial cult for mass international consumption. That’s why if any of you know Caesar Augustus by face, you know him by this face.

[And because they parked him outside of one of the world’s most famous casinos. You know, the guy who kept outlawing gambling…]
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