Art during the era of Augustus and his successors (44 BCE-64 AD). Part III. Portraits and Sculpture

When discussing the Ara Pacis and other monuments of the Augustan period, we have indicated the naturalism in the details and the balanced order of the compositions that characterize Roman sculpture.  We have also discussed the figurative representations of historical themes and local personifications of rivers, creeks and cities like the wonderful relief from the Via Appia showing three matrons crowned with towers representing three cities: one with the water jar-a city rich in water, Antioch close to the Orontes river-, the second with spikes -the metropolis of the Nile valley-, and the third fixes her mantle while leading the way -the Imperial Rome-.

The Three Tyches, marble, ca. 160 AD. (Louvre).

In the portraits made during Imperial Rome the peculiar circumstances of the appearance of each character were presented with some dignity: they showed the Etruscan realism influenced by the Roman political concepts of the day, which gave these portraits special nobility as can be seen in the bronze head of Augustus showing the young emperor when he was 25 years old.  Another portrait of Augustus as high priest and with some traces of polychromy shows the Emperor with his head wrapped in the folds of his priestly robe and is perhaps the more reflective of his portraits, it was a model of the emperor that was frequently adopted by his successors.  Other Caesars, and especially the philosopher emperors of the Antonine dynasty, were pleased to be represented wearing this simple robe covering their heads, a unique symbol of the great Roman priest.

Head of Augustus, also known as “Augustus of Meroe”, bronze, about 27-25 BCE. (British Museum).
The Via Labicana Augustus, marble, ca. 12 BCE. (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, National Museum of Rome).

In another portrait known as the Augustus of Prima Porta, somewhat the older Emperor Augustus appears with command gesture and dressed as a general haranguing his troops.  In his breast plate are represented in very fine reliefs the Gaul and Hispania humiliated: the barbarians from the Euphrates’ border return back the eagles taken from Crassus’ legions and the Sun’s chariot passes illuminating those great days of the Augustan Rome.  Here, the free imitation of Greek models is obvious.  The Augustus of Prima Porta is, in his gesture, very similar to the Doryphoros of Polykleitos: as the Doryphoros, Augustus stands on his right leg while swinging the left, and instead of the spear in his hand holds the consular cane.  The Prima Porta statue inaugurated a type of standing imperial portraits adopted by subsequent emperors.  Although there are countless and exquisite imperial effigies of other emperors similar in style to the Augustus of Prima Porta, only some details identify this statue to the founder of the Roman Empire: first, beside him is the dolphin of Venus with Love riding on it which refers to the origin of the Caesars as descendants of Aeneas son of Venus, second, the Emperor goes barefoot revealing his heroic character, he is not a simple magistrate who stands on our own ground.  When later emperors repeated this type, all wore rich and beautiful sandals.

The Augustus of Prima Porta, a 2.03 m high marble statue, 1st century AD. (Vatican Museums).
Detail of the head and the breast plate of the Augustus of Prima Porta (Vatican Museums).

However, despite the numerous existing portraits of Augustus, we don’t have any portrait to give us with absolute certainty the appearance of Livia, the woman who honorably shared with him the weight of his power.  Perhaps more than any other known of her portraits there is one that gives the impression of Livia’s figure, init she appears wearing a diadem, it is a statue sculpted during the time of Augustus and housed at the Vatican Museum.  Her gesture and the fact that appears wearing a mantle, is typical of the Greek funerary statues from the fourth century BCE, but its severe expression is clearly a Roman feature.

Statue of Livia, marble (Vatican Museums).

Emperor Claudius also had portraits in a heroic posture as a great deified monarch: one in particular shows him standing, carrying a scepter and wearing a mantle, and accompanied by the eagle of Jupiter.  For Nero several busts* were produced, in all of them he appears turning his head, his neck is huge and has small curled hair loops indicating an undeveloped beard.  Emperors and other members of the family of Augustus appeared completely shaved, with the exception of Nero who wanted to grow a beard in the manner of the ancient philosophers.  All the Emperors had their straight hair over their foreheads, the typical style of the family, a hairstyle used also by other patricians and close friends.  We can almost say that this hairstyle characterizes the portraits of the first imperial period, but also the eyes appeared smooth, as in the Greek portraits, with an unmarked pupil which would be only sculpted later until the time of the Antonines.

Emperor Claudius as Jupiter, marble (Vatican Museums).
Bust of Nero, marble (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

There are several female portraits from the imperial family.  The portrait of the first Agrippina, wife of Germanicus, was shown wearing long hair loops almost covering all her head and with a short braid at the back which was a hairstyle typical from the last period of the Republic; the second Agrippina has her hair divided in the middle with mild side curls, like the Empress Livia’s statue, which was characteristic of the portraits of the time of Augustus and his successors.

Head of Agrippina the Elder, marble (Louvre).
Head of Agrippina the Younger, marble (Louvre).


Many other characters have been identified not only by inscriptions but also by medals. The secondary characters of the imperial household used to mint coins of different metals with their portraits and those of their relatives.  An Allegory of the commemorated person or a relief allusive to some object that the deceased had estimated in life filled the reverse side of these medals.






*Bust: A sculpted or cast representation depicting a person’s head and neck, as well as a variable portion of the chest and shoulders. The piece is normally supported by a plinth. These forms recreate the likeness of an individual. A parallel term, aust, is a representation of the upper part of an animal or mythical creature.