Statue of Augustus

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Roman portraits in general seem to represent not just the mere appearance of the people portrayed, but particularly their identity. This feature seems to be closely connected with the concept of physiognomics, developed by Aristotle and his pupil Theophrastus in the fourth century BC, in which they demonstrated the close connection between the appearance of a person and his character1. Portraits of emperors also had a distinctive purpose to them. They intended to impress as well as to communicate the message of the powerful ruler and of his achievements.

Here, we will look at two vivid examples of such a pattern in the art of the ancient Rome: the statue of Augustus of Prima Porta and the colossal head of emperor Constantine. Even though it is rather difficult to compare this colossal head with another statue on a much smaller scale, we will examine features communicating a message of powerful and godlike ruler in the both figures.

The first sculpture we will look at is Augustus from Prima Porta, a marble copy based on a bronze original dating about 20 BC. It is 2 feet and 7.5 inches tall, and is now displayed in Vatican Museum.

In his autobiography Res Gestae, Augustus had publicly rejected the eighty silver statues representing him in Rome. This creates the image of a good and humble ruler. Still, the fact that those figures existed at all, in such a great number and in precious metal makes us wonder about why were they created in the first place. However, Augustus did not destroy all the images of himself.

In the statue of Prima Porta he is idealized, looking both godlike and human. His face bears close resemblance with all the other portraits of him and is most likely a realistic portrait, while his body is obviously idealized. Augustus' biographer Suetonius is being quite vivid in his physical description:

Augustus was remarkably handsome and of very graceful gait. His teeth were small, few, and decayed; his hair, yellowish and rather...
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