Augustus of Prima Porta: Response to Jas Elsner

“Power is very rarely limited to the pure exercise of brute force…The Roman State bolstered its authority and legitimacy with the trapping of ceremonial—cloaking the actualities of power beneath a display of wealth, the sanction of tradition, and the spectacle of insuperable resources.”  Jas Elsner, Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph, p. 54


Jas Elsner expressed his opinion about the way which the Roman Empire displayed its power. In addition to brutal military forces which physically and coercively united the the strong state together, the Roman Empire claimed its control and power via art works by showing the vast amount of energy being put into art. Displaying its richness and divinity, the statue Augustus of Prima Porta, with the patron of emperor Augustus himself, showed his power by depicting his gestures, the relationship with deities, and the clothes he wore. Augustus, in a contrapposto form, was an idealized view of the Roman emperor. He waved one of his hand in the air and stood in a orator pose which expressed his great confidence and control over his people and territory in Rome. His gesture showed his leadership by making him look as if he was making a speech. He was also connected to the god as a cupid was on the back of a dolphin beside one of his legs. The presence of the cupid beside him showed the legacy of Augustus as people viewed him as the descendent of Venus. He stood barefoot showing that he was standing on a scared ground, which further emphasized his divinity. In addition, he might also carry a sword in his left hand according to his gesture, and on his breastplate were gods participating in return of Roman standards from the Parthians. His breastplate indicated his identity as a warrior, and the judge’s robe on him made him a civic ruler. These two clothes indicated both military and political control. Therefore, Augustus claimed his power in the form of sculpture with his orator pose, the cupid beside him, and his clothes showing his power. The great details depicted on the the statue of Augustus of Prima Porta showed the refine sculpting ability of Roman artists. The statue was the method which the ancient Romans used for propagandistic purposes. Being not only a portrait of the emperor, it expresses Emperor Augustus’ connection to the god, his role as a military and political leader, and his job to create Pax Romana. Through the display of great amount of energy devoted to producing art works sponsored by the emperor, the power and the wealth which the Roman Empire acquired were largely revealed to the public.


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