Augustan Art: Master of Spin Theassassination of Julius Caesar changed the course of Roman history andart.
Augustus Octavian, had toconcurrently deal with the death of his adoptive father and the fate of theRoman Empire. Augustus wanted to restoreRome to a nation of peace, stability and prosperity and to convey this he hadto gain and maintain the trust of the people. Although his rise to power could not have been without an appointment byJulius, it was his use of art and propaganda that reinforced the legitimacy andsuccess of his position. Forms ofpropaganda existed in statues, monuments, literature and even currency andcould be consumed by anyone. Literacyrates were low, so statutes and monuments were an important part of howAugustus spread his image as a ruler, diplomat, family man, and religiousfigure along with unifying Rome under his control. Perhaps the most famous Augustan monument isthe Ara Pacis seen in Figure 1.
Thismonument represents Augustus’ success in addressing three major ideologies ofRoman life: military, religion, and family. Every facet of Roman culture is addressedthrough sculptural imagery and symbolism on Ara Pacis. The Roman Senate commissioned the Ara Pacison July 4, 13 BC and it dedicated on January 30, 9 BCE, to celebrate Augustus’ safereturn from conquests in Spain and Gaul, but the symbolism of the Ara Pacisextends way beyond just his return. Hissafe homecoming provided an acceptable reason to build such a detailed and elaboratesacred monument symbolizing the peace and prosperity that Augustus brought tothe Romans. While the Senate designedthe piece, Augustus had direct control over the aesthetics of public art andthe ideological messages. The marble altar known as “Altar of AugustanPeace” consists of a stone table of sacrifice within four walls carved with arelief sculpture seen in figure 2.
Thealtar was built on the northern edge of Rome, in the northeastern corner ofCampus Martius. Although the identity ofthe artists are not known, the detail and stone work would lead one to believethey were the best sculptors in Rome. Over the centuries, the monument was covered with silt from the RiverTiber and was not discovered until 1568. The altar was relocated to it’s own building in 1938 and is now housedin the Museum of the Ara Pacis. Thephysical altar stands inside the outer walls and is where blood sacrifices tookplace. The interior and exterior wallsare divided into two registers of relief sculpture and is a monument honoringAugustus and his family for bringing peace to Rome. War had been a part of Romefor some time and Augustus brought about an end to these large-scalebattles.
He wanted to be portrayed as aman who restored peace and stability, while maintaining a strong warriorappearance. The interior and exterior ofthe four walls are divided into two registers of relief sculpture. The upperregister of the exterior depicts religious sacrifice, various gods, and otherprominent historical figures while the lower portion is filled with botanicalmotifs. All the imagery is deliberatelychosen to communicate the message and themes of Ara Pacis. The lower zones on all of the four outerwalls are carved with a pattern of floral vines and a botanical theme.
(Figure 3) The imagery contributes to the overalltheme symbolizing beauty, abundance, and growth that existed during Augustusreign. Theprocessional panels offer a change in Augustus’ motives. In earlier Augustan sculptures, artists werefocused exclusively on the image and characteristics of Augustus’ leadershipand authority. While the Ara Pacis trulyportrayed him as “the first among equals” it also allowed him to shift thepolitical theme from how he wanted to appear to Roman citizens to creating astable future for Rome. The processionalpanels express this change. Unlike otherpublic works, the Ara Pacis emphasized Roman culture as a community more thanone man’s effect on that culture.
Maintaining peace required involvement of all Romans. The sacrificialprocession, an event that all Roman citizens participate in, portrayed on thepanels reminded the viewer that the common people were just as important as thegoverning body. The Ara Pacis alsodepicts specific events with recognizable historical figures like Livia,Augustus’ wife and for the first time children are shown on the panels. The North Wall features an inauguralprocession with approximately 46 figures including Augustus, his adopted sonand successor Tiberus, his daughter Julia, Marcella daughter of his sisterOctavia, and Iullus Antonius, son of Mark Antony along with three youngchildren. The South Wall also containedmany recognizable figures of Augustus’ family, including Agrippa. The East and West Walls have two reliefpanels, which have been damaged over time, but have been deciphered to includethe themes of fertility and well-being. While art historians are still not sure who the characters are, onepanel has a Goddess sitting with twins, and a female warrior Roma sitting atopof a pile of weapons. The inference isthat she has forced peace upon her enemies by confiscating their weapons andtherefore they are unable to declare war.
The panel with the goddess sitting with twins has been morecontroversial about who the goddess portrays. Scholars have suggested that the goddess is Italia, Tellus, Venus andPeace, along with other views. While notbeing certain on the goddess name, most agree that the scene depicted is ascene of peace and prosperity. The WestWall contains two panels picturing the sacrifice of a pig which was a Romancustom following a peace treaty. It issignificant to note the two north panels focus on military and war while thesouthern panels reflect peace, fertility, family, and abundance. The four panels connect to three major themesof Augustus’ ideology: Military, Religion and Family. Thepanels of Ara Pacis were a slight departure from standard imagery reflected inearlier Augustan representations. Previous sculptures, artist used imagery that focused exclusively on thefavorable characteristics of Augustus as a way to justify his strength andauthority.
The Ara Pacis panelsexemplify change and communicated that Augustus did not need to constantlypromote himself. The processional panels pushed for cultural unity, instead ofa single order of priests leading the rituals for the Roman elite community,the surviving figures on both the north and south wall panels are from variousreligious orders. The artist sculptedthe priests with ceremonial objects such as, rods, incense boxes, laurelwreaths and varied attire sets them apart from the other citizens. A noticeable difference is that Augustus isamong the priests, not above them or isolated from them as a god or emperorwould have been, only emphasizing his new “modest” existence in Roman society. **something about his religion inserted here Anotherchange in ideology was the sculptors’ inclusion of the family.
(Fig. 16) Regardless of ones class, women and childrenwere not normally incorporated into traditional public Roman art. This was the opportunity for Augustus todisplay his family to the public. Heused this opportunity to solidify his family dynasty and to emphasize the imageof a unified family, reassuring the Romans of the stability and the continuanceof this culture of peace could be maintained past his lifetime. The Romans placed value on lineage,especially if it could be traced back to a divinity or important historicalfigure.
For the Ara Pacis and subsequentworks, Augustus took this concept and reversed it. Instead of fixating on his ancestry, he wasconcerned with who held the future of Rome in their hands. Through visual symbolism he generatedevidence that Rome would continue to thrive after Augustus because his familywas just as capable to lead as he was.
Scholarssometimes negatively refer to Augustan art as “propaganda,” emphasizing itsmanipulative aspects. The visual artsprovided Augustus with a non-aggressive method to persuade the people to accepthis authority. He relied on the visualarts as a means of gaining trust during his campaign to rebuild thenation. Augustus employed the use of”soft power” and “hard power” throughout his regime. Aside from the military dominance of theso-called “hard power”, Augustus’ manipulation of cultural activitystrengthened his authority, introduced social reformation and brought bothmoral and cultural influences to the forefront.
Through his use of “soft power”, Augustus could maintain the security ofpeace within Rome without civil wars. “Poweris very rarely limited to the pure exercise of brute force. Insofar as power is a matter or presentation,its cultural currency in antiquity (and still today) was the creation,manipulation, and display of images. Inthe propagation of the imperial office, at any rate art was power. The usage of works of art to create the imageof power at any one time (a propaganda strategy which a state may more or lessdetermine), is broadly dependent on the ways art is viewed and perceived in asociety.” This is not to say theAugustan imagery was not manipulative, because its persuasive nature was whatconvinced the Romans to accept Augustus, but his motivation was not onlyself-indulgent.
Augustus truly wanted tomake changes happen without force. Therevival of Rome depended on establishing consistency. Augustusdeliberately refashioned his image to become a source of stability forRome. Even the gesture of changing hisname from Octavian to Augustus clearly defined his character and setexpectations for him to act in a dignified, yet humble manner. His planned portrait archetype became a constantvisual that applied to all art in Roman culture. The unchanging physical type and repetitivesymbolism laid a foundation of stable values upon which Romans could rely. If the political climate seemed uncertain,they could always turn to the unwavering image of Augustus forreassurance.
The symbolism assertedthrough any crisis, Augustus stood by Rome. Statuesand monuments served as physical reminders of Augustus’ rule as well as hisaccomplishments. They describedhistorical events, suggested divine favor and were used to persuade Romans ofhis greatness in life and in death. Whendiscussing Augustus and his use of art and architecture as a vehicle for hispolitical ideologies, there is a reason why he is remembered as possibly Rome’sgreatest leader.
With all of thephysical evidence, in addition to his actual real life actions, it is easy tosee how this has become his legacy. Unlike in the modern era where many individuals have the capacity,power, and freedom to keep public officials honest, Rome had very few suchindividuals. Those who could read andwrite were either of similar mine and were “happy to salute the new period ofpeace,” or they simply knew that opposing Augustus, the most powerful man inthe known world, was tantamount to suicide.” Thislack of checks on the Augustan image served to expedite Augustus’ willthroughout the empire. When there is nomass media to investigate or question one’s rule, it becomes easier to stay incharge and convince the people of one’s leadership. This can be contrasted with today’s modernmedia where there exist various media outlets that can challenge regimes tomaintain transparency. Itwas easier to manipulate large groups of people in the time of Augustus.
Yes,he had the support of military, but it is important to make sure the peopleyour ruling know that you are the best and only option. A peaceful population makes for effective andeasy governance.