Augustus and Divine Imagery

Emperors in the Roman Empire would frequently manipulate their public image to convey their best aspects, whether fact or fantasized, and further their private imagery to cement private belief in himself as a righteous ruler, so much so that even they would fall into the deception themselves. The Emperor Augustus, known initially as Octavian, was well-regarded as the ‘saviour of Rome’, the princeps that brought Rome into their golden age of prosperity and restored the Roman Republic, and as such he was often portrayed as something of a god among mortals, sent to help the Roman Empire in its time of need. His achievements many, the reorganisation of the coinage ‘into a single precious-metal currency system’ and in his actions taken to ‘defeat the men “who butchered my father”’, Augustus portrayed himself as if he were ‘executor of a divine mission’ and claimed that ‘he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble’.

Augustus chose to be addressed differently during his rise to power and success to accrue nothing less than reverence from the Roman people. He was born Gaius Octavius from his biological father and later expanded to the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, as he was named Caesar’s son and heir by his will in 45 BC. The meaning of the name Augustus, which was bestowed upon him by the Senate on 16th January 27 BC, carried with it ideas of superhuman status, from the Latin ‘augere‘ meaning ‘to increase’, connected also with ‘augurium‘ and the religious connotations of augury, further linking Augustus into the realms of Romulus, the founder of Rome, ‘and elevated him beyond mortal limits’. In 27 BC, the Senate agreed to officially and legally recognise Julius Caesar as a god, cementing the legislative amendments he made in his time as dictator and subsequently condemning objections. In this move, Octavian ‘was now able to describe himself as divi filius – son of a god’, ignoring his adoption into the Caesar family tree, but ‘son of a new god and as such “holy” and venerable himself’. In his Res Gestae Divi Augusti, Augustus describes that laurels symbolic of his adoptive father were placed at his door that day, a shrub which also links to the god of music, Apollo, further cementing Augustus’ belief in his strong connections with the god. Appealing to his connections with Apollo, in October 28 BC, Augustus ‘dedicated a huge new Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill near his home’ to give thanks for the god’s assistance in his substantial victory at Actium, which is frequently described by poets as a decisive victory thanks to ‘Actian Apollo’s interventions. Augustus mentions this temple in his Res Gestae Divi Augusti, a signal of his pride in his achievements and a reminder to readers of his connection with the god.

In Roman civilisation, both members of high and low society would utilise the inscription on their graves to impart the story of their lives, however fabricated, from beyond the grave, to attract attention and worship from passers-by. Augustus’ inscription on The Monumentum Ancyranum, known as the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, is described as ‘perhaps the most interesting and important inscription that has ever come to light’, a ‘dying statement of the founder of the Roman Principate’. Intended to be presented as two bronze tablets outside his mausoleum in the Campus Martius to the effect that masses of sightseers and worshippers would read them in passing for religious festivals and games, the best surviving copy was found on the walls of a presumed temple to Augustus and Rome at Ancyra, while a further copy was also discovered in the Greek colony of Apollonia which Augustus himself founded The document is one of three records that Augustus wrote to be read out in the senate after his death, and conveys in his own words Augustus’ views of his grand achievements for Rome, ‘extinguished civil war’ for one, and as such he details the honours bestowed upon him by the Senate . However extensive the information featured on the inscription, historians must remain aware that the purpose of such self-epitaphs are to form the reader’s perception of the life of that person as opposed to relaying accurate events.

The statue of Augustus of Prima Porta is a prime example of his public image of divinity and righteousness, displaying numerous ecclesiastical figures such as Apollo and Diana while also commemorating Augustus’ victory over Cleopatra with the presence of a Sphinx relief. Frequently depicted in statues such as the Prima Porta with a figure of Cupid riding a dolphin at his foot, Augustus attested to his divine right to the Roman throne of power through his connections with the son of Venus through his adopted father Julius Caesar. In striking comparison with passages of the Aeneid, the Prima Porta also displays Augustus’ strong links with Aeneas, his attire resembles Aeneas himself as he encouraged the surrender of a Roman eagle standard from the hands of a barbarian. His divine ancestor Aeneas often features in Augustus’ imagery in an attempt to confirm that his ascent to power in Rome had been organised by the gods for centuries. Depicted as a ‘god upon Earth’, Augustus is presented without a helmet and barefoot, an unlikely choice in preparation for the battlefield, but instead presents a god-like immortality to Augustus. Similar to the images we see on Augustan coinage, barbarians are pictured falling to their knees in the face of a mighty Augustan empire. The coinage that was distributed throughout Rome was more emotionally attached than it is to us today, the figures that appeared on its face were venerable guards of the individual’s monetary riches. On the face of an Augustan coin, the letters RPC, representative of rei publicae constitutendae, appear in a triangle similar to the symbol of Apollo, ‘whom he considered his personal tutelary deity’. The emperor is depicted on the face of the denarius as a strong link between Rome and the provinces, and their gratitude for Augustus’ actions towards the end of civil war and corruption was frequently bestowed in the form of ‘nearly divine honours’.

On the other hand, this idea of a revered emperor above all would have never gained ground had the populace of Rome and the provinces not bought into the idea themselves. Most of the divinity bestowed upon Augustus was beyond his control but a mere by-product of widespread public worship. During his lifetime, Augustus was considered a divine figure in the Roman world as a response to his epic achievements in the development of the Roman Empire, not the image he carved for himself in stone. Upon his return after the successful defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, ‘he entered Rome to a welcome fit for a semi-divine hero’, revered through religious chants and libations under Senate orders. Following this heroic victory against the alien Egyptian queen, Augustus had become ‘the one who effectively made and interpreted the laws’ and rebuked any contest to his claim of real power as the primus inter pares, the ‘first among equals’. The imperial cult forged around Augustus by the worshipping public acknowledged his ‘more than human greatness’ under a Greek model of individual worship which involved ‘thanks, praise, speeches, song, communal activities, monuments, and worship in seamless series’, that had been bestowed upon the Romans, ‘the most emphatic and precious ones being, in the end, no less than the due of Augustus’. Sharing this view, the renowned Roman poet Ovid would frequently depict Augustus as a deity, identifying Augustus with the god Jupiter, and subsequently giving us ‘a more detailed picture of emperor worship than any Augustan poet… or perhaps any Roman poet’.

However, what happened behind closed doors in a Roman Emperor’s lifetime would mostly stay behind closed doors until his death, and it was therefore at the emperor’s discretion how he desired to be viewed by his close friends, family and dinner acquaintances. In his private life, Augustus carried forward his belief in a link to Apollo, the god of music, having once arrived at a party dressed as Apollo and was seen ‘feasting amid new adulteries of the gods’ and consequently reprimanded for his reputation as ‘Apollo the Tormentor’ fuelled by his seemingly limitless extravagance and indulgence in his personal life. However, in most social circumstances it is documented that Augustus was down-to-earth and far from godlike in his sense of humour, self-deprecating and witty, and furthermore Augustus personally refused to be referred to under titles ‘such as dictator, king, and god’ and satisfied himself with the title of princeps, the leading citizen. With regards to the titles Augustus collected in his lifetime, in his early adulthood Octavian appealed to the religious side of Rome and was appointed to ‘the priestly college of pontifices’, although his career revolved around avoiding the attentions of local ladies who would otherwise compromise his chastity. Later in 12 BC, Augustus became pontifex maximus, the position of chief priest, symbolic of his dedication to revive religious temples and festivals, which Cooley claims ‘made him appear as a new Numa, second king of Rome, notable for his religious activities, as well as a Romulus’. As such, Augustus appeared in ’20 out of his 230 surviving portraits’ draped in a veil required for sacrificial events, the most notable appearing on the altar of Augustan Peace. The land on which the Ara Pacis Augustae stands, the Campus Martius, was a dedicated area purpose-built for Augustus worship where the symbols of his self-deification are most prominent. The Ara Pacis Augustae, constructed between 13 and 9 BC, demonstrates the official interpretation of Augustus as prescribed by the principate, not so much divine but primus inter pares and a mediator between mortals and gods, while still effectively maintaining a special relationship with the immortal realm, a casual relationship which Roman art at this point had not dared to explore.

Imagery that was far less mass-produced than that of the Prima Porta, such as cameos and statuettes, displayed the Augustus that the populace rarely saw. The Gemma Augustea arguably depicts Augustus with a ‘strained, ailing, yet ideal and noble face’, yet he appears holding Jupiter’s lituus to demonstrate that he has the ‘power to interpret the will of Jupiter and is therefore subordinate to the supreme god of the Roman pantheon’. His early biographer Suetonius discovered an alternate image of Octavian to the inherent divinity expressed in his public images, a bronze statuette of Gaius Octavius as a boy with the word ‘Thurinus‘ at its base, alluding to his questionable origins in the town of Thurii, noted as the home of a servant ropemaker. When this statuette was given to the Emperor Hadrian, however, he placed it among the shrine to household gods in his palace. Furthermore a mythmaker of his own life story, Augustus claims that the stories purporting to his toga of manhood, which fell apart at the seams and flowed around his ankles, was a foundation for his future command of the Senate that would too fall ‘at his feet’.

Augustus, more so in his public imagery, portrayed his view of his own undeniable ties with the realm of the gods through his adoptive father Caesar, revered by the Senate as a god, and also through his appeal to the widely accepted gods such as Apollo and Aeneas. However, the evidence of this self-portrait of god-like stature appears as a result of the divinity given to him by his people and provinces, as the saviour of Rome, the ‘one and only absolute ruler’.

Cooley, Alison E., Res Gestae Divi Augusti: Text, Translation and Commentary, Cambridge, 2009.
Guven, Suna, ‘Displaying the Res Gestae of Augustus: A Monument of Imperial Image for All’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 57 (1998), 30-45.
Hardy, E.G., The Monumentum Ancyranum, Oxford, 1923.
Holland, Louise Adams, ‘Aeneas-Augustus of Prima Porta’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 78 (1947), 276-284.
Holland, Richard, Augustus: Godfather of Europe, Stroud, 2004.
Macmullen, Ramsay, Romanization in the Time of Augustus, London, 2000.
Raaflaub, Kurt A. and Toher, Mark, Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate, London, 1990.
Shotter, David, Augustus Caesar, London, 1991.
Vermeule, Cornelius, ‘Greek and Roman Gems’, Boston Museum Bulletin, 64 (1966), 18-35.

7 thoughts on “Augustus and Divine Imagery

  1. Pingback: What’s in a Number? Part Fout | Ramblings in the dark…

  2. Pingback: Augustus as Seen by Himself and by Others | The Leather Library

  3. Pingback: Octavian’s Rise to Power and the Institution of the ‘Principate’ | The Leather Library

  4. Pingback: Propaganda, Laws, Religion and ‘Morals in Augustan Rome | The Leather Library

  5. Pingback: Snakes and Altars – Feather & Scale

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s