Roman Imperial Portraiture I


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Augustus and the Julio-Claudians

The official image of Augustus Caesar, replicated through the sculptural media of full-length statuary, portrait busts, reliefs, cameos, and coinage, sought to legitimate the new imperial form of government, to differentiate his regime from the previous political order, and to solidify the position of the gens iulia.

This was an not an exercise in branding. The creation of the portrait was an essential act of statecraft. Replicated and disseminated throughout the empire, the objects bearing the emperor’s image were, for the majority of the population, their only experience of the pater patriae. Given the fleeting nature of that experience, the embedded ideological information had to be conveyed in a concise and clear visual manner.

Augustus was a philhellene, who wished to be seen as the new Pericles ushering in a second golden age. His portrait unsurprisingly is overtly Greek in style and conception. Carved in the soft-focus, idealizing manner of Praxiteles or Lysippos, the so-called Augustus Bevilacqua is Apollonian, winsome, heroic and youthful, with his hair arranged in comma locks.

The overt stylistic allusions to classical Greece associate the emperor with a prestigious and venerable culture and suggest historical continuity with the past. At the same time, the image of the hellenized ideal emperor contrasts sharply with the indigenous, Roman tradition of craggy realism. By rejecting the aggressive mimesis of republican portraiture, Augustus not only distances himself from Roman parochialism and the political chaos of the recent past, but also ushers in a new secure, cosmopolitan era,

The Augustan image was formulated shortly after Octavian took control of state at the age of 36. Although he lived another 40 years, the portrait never aged. This was not personal vanity: the image of eternal youth assured the public of their leader’s continued vigor and capability, well into the emperor’s senectitude, and, by extension, the permanence of the pax augusta. Due to Its timeless appearance, the image could be used, without any adjustments, to represent the immortal, deified ruler after his death.

To assert their dynasty’s legitimacy, Augustus’ successors (as well as his son-in-law, Drusus, and his grandson, Germanicus, whom he expected to succeed him, but outlived) represented themselves in a similarly idealized manner, overlaying their own physiognomies with those of Augustus. The official portrait of Augustus therefore became the template for the official images of the Julio-Claudian emperors.

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