Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Political Agenda Through Images - The Age of Augustus

Shayla Miles
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

The age of Augustus was one of the most successful, innovative and interesting time periods in the history of the world. The political genius of Augustus brought about a golden age in Rome, combining the best elements from Greek and Hellenistic imagery as well as Roman res publica values and mythology. The peace and security that Augustus brought about did not come overnight, however. Battles using images and swords, in and out of the political arena arose, as well as the struggle to restore traditional Roman values to a society that had been focusing more and more on their private lives in the late republic. Octavian had to find a new way to appeal to the Roman people, a populus that had been struggling amidst the corrupt and immoral workings of the late Republic. From his genius usage of political images and portrayal of himself to his “healing” of Roman society through building projects, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus lead Rome from the turbulent end of the Republic to the age of empires, which would forever affect and shape the course of Roman history, and always be looked back
upon as the Golden Age.

Before one can examine Augustus and the great things he did for Rome, and how he went about it, the events that led up to it all have to be examined. The decline of the Republic, starting with the dichotomy of a Roman public life and Hellenistic private life, as well as the murder of Julius Caesar, Octavian’s great uncle, can be said to have put the cry for a new age in motion. As mentioned before, there were distinct values in Roman society, namely virtue, piety, and duty to the state. Luxury and frivolity in public life was not tolerated. However, towards the late Republic, many citizens (especially the wealthier or politically powerful patricians, who could get away with it) would lead dutiful public lives, and then leave the city to go to their country villas to pursue a more Hellenistic, that is to say, artistically and pleasure focused, private life. Here, villas would be decorated with Greek statuary, and Greek gala events would take place. Symposiums and parties in a Dionysitic manner - wine drinking, games of passion, love between men, philosophical talks - the kind of excess that was regarded as immoral and unjust in public life, would fill the private lives of well off patricians, even lower class citizens to an extent. This immoral behavior was often blamed for the turbulent end of the Republic, as senators became more focused on personal wealth and glory, fueling corruption. Augustus would later use this in his campaign for “healing” Roman society to reinforce the idea of piety and a disdain for excess, for it was these traits that were necessary to have a successful state blessed by the Gods.

The instability that wracked the last few years of the Republic culminated with the murder of Julius Caesar. Brutus and Cassius, members of the senate, reflected the people’s fear of a tyrant, and together with other senators, murdered Caesar in the theater of Pompey. Marc Antony gained power of the senate after this, but Octavian when he was only 19 raised an army and defeated him in 43 B.C. An agreement was reached between the two, and along with Marcus Lepidus, they formed the second triumvirate. Together they lead an army against Brutus and Cassius and defeated them in 42 B.C., avenging Julius Caesar’s death, and gaining territory which they divided amongst themselves. Eventually, Lepidus lost his land to Octavian, leaving him to control the Western territory (Italy, Gaul, etc.), and to Antony the east (Asia Minor, Egypt), (World book).

Trouble, however, began brewing between Antony and Octavian. At this time, Antony ruled from the east, and in the meantime, had fallen in love with Cleopatra, an Egyptian queen who eventually bore him sons, while Octavian ruled actually in Rome. The two men, hoping to gain sole power of Rome, launched a political war against each other, using mythology and images as their ammunition. For example, Antony chose to portray himself as Dionysus or Bacchus, the god of wine, and this choice shaped not only the public’s image of him, but how Antony saw himself. Thus, the image that he used began to shape his actions. He lived a life of luxury in the exotic east with his Egyptian mistress (who would later become his wife), throwing large feasts and parties, while treating himself like a God. This gave Roman citizens the impression that Antony was squandering his wealth, rather than helping to strengthen Rome and do something for the people, as Octavian was clearly doing, (Zanker, Images).

Antony did not chose his image wisely, for his “Dionysiac revels” were denounced by Octavian in his shrewd political campaign as corrupt, godless, and associated with spiritual weakness - all of the characteristics the Roman people associated with the moral decay and thus problems with the late Republic. Antony finally crossed the line when he gave a number of Rome’s eastern provinces to Cleopatra and their children. Octavian called this unpatriotic and went to war with him and Cleopatra. They were defeated in 31 B.C. in the naval battle at Actium, which Octavian later uses as propaganda to validate his reign and rule.Octavian, however, made a much wiser choice as to which God to align himself with. He chose Apollo, the youthful and beautiful God of sun, music, and the arts, and Apollo, from this point on, always played a huge role in Octavian’s images of himself. From a historical point of view, however, Apollo was a very fitting God in terms of symbolism. The Roman people, in the midst of political unrest and uncertainty, began to have this irrational longing for a savior. Thus, any man who was to ascend to the emperor’s throne had to be able to fill this godlike role of savior. Octavian, throughout his political campaign, aligned himself with the god Apollo, as already mentioned, but from his very birth he was said to have godlike powers. For example, Suetonius writes in his “Life of Augustus Caesar” in the 1st century referring to Octavian’s mother Attia in the temple of Apollo, “a serpent glided up, entered her, and then glided away again. On awakening she purified herself...and the birth of Augustus nine months later suggested divine paternity,” (Testimonia). As a boy too, he was said to have superhuman powers - frogs obeyed his command (Zanker, Images). However, the most blatant form of propaganda was his use of sun and star images on coins and the like, which not only associated himself with Apollo, but were used as omen signs to show the populus he was the blessed new ruler sent by the Gods. Now that one understands the historical context and the foundations of Augustus’imagery and mythology, the monuments visited in the presentation of Augustus can now be examined. First was the remains of the Temple of Mars Ultor, located in the Forum of Augustus. This monument really marks the beginning of Octavian’s building campaign (although most of the actual temple building went on a lot later in his rule). This temple was Octavian’s statement that he had avenged the death of Julius Caesar.

In Octavian’s earlier years, his political agenda was not so much promoting himself, but promoting the image of the late Caesar and associating himself with that image of Caesar. In this way, the Roman people would be sure to look back upon Caesar fondly, as well as associate Octavian most closely with this beloved, wrongfully murdered man. The temple of Mars Ultor, in is prime, would of had a large cult statue of Mars (the God of war) as well as many statues of Julius Caesar in godlike poses (Zanker, Images). This temple was one of the 80 or more temples erected during the rule of Augustus. The focus on architecture and building projects during the first part of his reign was the centerpiece of the religious renewal program. “Only the best for the Gods,” was Octavian’s ultimate motto (Zanker, Images). Thus the focus turned away from Hellenistic private life, and towards a renewed sense of religious duty. Pride as well, played a lot into this, as so many glorious new temples were being erected, a Roman citizen couldn’t help but feel proud at the sight of his beautified city as well as a sense of responsibility to live up to these new standards that were graciously being instilled by the new emperor.

We then examined the copy of the Prima Porta statue of Augustus as well as the pater patrae, which displays the maturation of Augustus’s use of imagery and symbolism to appeal to the Roman people. This turning point in Octavian’s image happens after the battle of Actium, which marks the new age of Augustus. There is a significant change of focus after the political and military battle with Marc Antony. Up to this point, the statuary depicting the young Octavian captured a ambitious and power hungry young man, and used Hellenistic imagery style to depict him as godlike. It was merely for self-glorification, because at this point, Octavian had not done much for Rome, only asserted that he was the only one capable of changing things. However, in 27 B.C., the senate renames Octavian “Augustus”, a name that has a broad range of meanings, including “stately”, “dignified”, and “holy,” giving Augustus the ability to completely changes his image (Zanker, Images). We don’t actually get very many earlier images of Octavian to compare his newer one to, for after his shift in images, he had them all removed from around the city and melted them down, and gave them as a votive offering to Apollo (Galinsky, Culture). This dramatic move, though, tells just how large the shift in images was, and how important his new image would be for his political agenda. So what was this new image and why was it so important? Why change every single portrait, statue or bust of yourself in the entire kingdom just because of a name change? It has already been mentioned the emphasis placed on religious revival, duty to the gods, etc. With this in mind, it was impossible for Augustus to have these statues of himself around, asserting this arrogant claim to all encompassing power and God ship. Thus, “in place of the bony and irregular features of Octavian’s portraiture, the new type is marked by a harmony of proportions, inspired by the classical canon...[the face’s] earlier arrogance are now done away with. The face is now characterized by a calm, elevated expression...and timeless and remote dignity,” (Zanker, Images). He is dignified and virtuous. Powerful yet pious. His new image was not an outright claim to power, but a calm assertion that he was the only one capable of leading Rome into a glorious new era. The symbols on the Prima Porta statue are good examples of the mythology and imagery that Augustus wanted to associate himself with. He stands next to a statue of Eros riding a dolphin, claiming his divine ancestry (for Aeneas, the traditional founder of what today is known as Rome is the son of Venus, who is mother to Eros in most myths). His attire, which consists of military attire is, however, without shoes, which was a Classical way of depicting a God, elevating him onto a plane that transcends mortality. His breastplate is full of imagery of his connection between heaven and earth that he forges, as well as symbols of victory from the barbarians he has defeated. The pater patrae statue as well, depicts Augustus in a godlike manner - “the humble image of Augustus as the togatus making a sacrifice...does nothing to conceal the notion that he enjoyed divine powers,” (Zanker, Images). Though this statue was dedicated when Augustus was around 60 years old, versus the Prima Porta statue, dedicated almost 30 years prior, the serene, pious gaze is unchanging permanently fixed in a Classical youthful manner, reminiscent of portraitures of Alexander the Great - young but wise, humble, strong, and recalling of the youthful valor and glory Alexander achieved, conquering and unifying most of the known world. Augustus did not conquer and unify the known world at the time, but he did indeed expand Rome's territory holdings and undoubtedly conquered any opposition to his new reign as Emperor.

The legacy of Augustus was to be remembered and revered by forthcoming generations as a time of greatness. After his death, Augustus was in fact worshiped like a God. Temples were dedicated to him all over the empire, and emperors after him tried to live up to the standard that he had set. The imagery that he used - the youthful, Classical style of his statues - was used for centuries to recall the Godlike powers that Augustus employed and the new age that he brought about. The architecture used to stress the importance on religion, too, carried onto future generations as the temples that Augustus built became the centerpieces of the lives of Roman citizens until the beginning of Christianity (and some temples remained, transformed into Christian churches). Augustus’s political maneuvers were so tactical and fascinating - emperors from Trajan to Constantine tried to emulate his powerful uses of imagery, attempting to recall this glorious age. People nowadays still visit the temple of Mars, though its now in ruins, and marvel at its sheer size; we look at the copy of the Prima Porta statue on the via Imperiale and are blown away at all the intricate imagery; we stumble upon the Mausoleum or see images from the Ara Pacis (hopefully one day we will get the chance to actually see the real thing) and cannot even begin to comprehend the impact Augustus made on the Roman people. We are still interested in going to see his buildings or statues today because, I think, there is something eternal about what Augustus did and stood for. He was a man that lead a people out of war, instability and chaos, into one of the most prosperous and innovative periods in ancient history.