by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Archeological Museum, Naples
Cameo-glass Dionysiac scene from Pompeii, 1st century AD

A Look at Emperor Augustus and Roman Classical Style

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME. Italy 16 December 2013


'I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble,' said the Emperor Augustus, according to the historian Suetonius. Despite the ravages of time, sufficient remains are visible today to support this claim.

The last exhibition devoted to Augustus in Rome was in 1937, pegged to the 2,000th anniversary of his birth in 63 B.C. Its function was nakedly propagandistic in promoting the Fascist dictator Mussolini and his attempts to build a new Roman Empire.

Next year marks the 2,000th anniversary of the emperor's death, on August 19, A.D. 14 , and is the occasion for 'Augustus,' a more dispassionate and revealing show at the Scuderie del Quirinale through Feb. 9. Illustrated with over 170 marbles, bronzes, terracottas and other artifacts from museums in Italy and Greece and from other collections on both sides of the Atlantic, the show will travel to the Grand Palais in Paris in the spring of 2014.

The lead curator, Eugenio La Rocca, and his team of Italian and French scholars have opted to concentrate on how Augustus projected his image through art and architecture and how this gave birth to a new classical Roman style, which would long outlive the first emperor and influence imperial and dynastic art over the next two millennia.

The rise to power for Augustus began with the assassination of Julius Caesar, who had adopted his great-nephew, the young Octavian - Augustus's name then - as his son and heir. The title 'Augustus,' which means 'lofty' or 'sublime,' was later awarded to him by the Senate in 27 B.C.

The opening sections of the exhibition display some of the finest surviving examples of the monumental and portrait statuary of Octavian-Augustus, his family and inner circle that represented the public face of the renewed 'republican' regime in Rome and appeared in towns and cities throughout the empire. Over 200 images of Augustus survive, more than of any other emperor.

Among them is the 'Augustus of Prima Porta' from the Vatican, a full-length larger-than-life, idealized statue of him in military dress, named after the location where it was unearthed in 1863, near the Via Flaminia. The first portrait busts, examples of which are on show here, date to around 40 B.C., when Octavian was 23, by which time he was in command of the Western Roman Empire, while his fellow triumvirs Mark Antony and Lepidus ruled the Eastern Roman Empire and African colonies respectively.

These busts were also idealized, although some appear to have realistic portrait elements, notably in the subject's distinctive jug-ears. The official face of Augustus was to remain forever that of a vigorous young man - as the remaining busts, made over several decades and even postmortem, demonstrate at the exhibition.

Having defeated Mark Antony at the naval battle of Actium in 31 B.C., which led to the suicides in Egypt of Antony and his lover Cleopatra, Octavian finally found himself in command of the entire Roman Empire. While paying lip service to the old republican system, the de facto new emperor soon became preoccupied with finding a suitable successor to guarantee that the revolutionary changes he was now enacting would outlive him.

This problematic aspect of the new regime is highlighted by other portrait busts in the opening sections of the exhibition. Here we find a full lineup of the candidates at one time designated as Augustus's successors: his nephew Marcellus, his stepson Drusus, his grandsons Gaius and Lucius, all of whom died before him. And of the final candidates: Augustus's last grandson, Agrippa Postumus, who was murdered by unknown hands on the first emperor's death, leaving the field clear for Tiberius, the son by a previous marriage of Augustus's wife Livia.

Perhaps mindful of the sticky end his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, endured, Augustus avoided aspiring to divinity during his lifetime. Nor was he represented in explicitly godlike forms in public art. But as a beautiful selection of gems and cameos, manufactured for the imperial household and the upper echelons of society bear witness, Augustus was frequently depicted in the guise of gods such as Jove and Apollo. Among them is the exquisite agate 'Ionides Octavian' from the British Museum, in which he appears as Mercury.

That Romans were not only enjoying an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity under his rule but living in a Golden Age was central to the regime's propaganda. Augustus was fortunate that great poets like Virgil and Horace would emerge to sing his praises and that of the new 'Pax Augusta.' How this Golden Age was represented in art, architecture and the decorative arts is the theme of the second half of the exhibition on the Scuderie del Quirinale's upper floor.

Elaborate motifs of fertility and abundance appear in examples of architectural embellishments, while in three exquisitely carved panels a ewe, a lioness and a female boar nurture their young in pastoral settings echoing Virgil's 'Eclogues' and 'Georgics.' The explosion of luxury goods is reflected in displays of artifacts in gold, silver, bronze and glass, including an enchanting cameo-glass Dionysiac scene from Pompei.

The exhibition closes with a telling sequence of 11 reliefs of the battle of Actium, that history-changing moment, and the triumphal processions of its victor, brought together here for the first time in centuries from Budapest and the Spanish cities of Córdoba and Seville, in which Augustus appears posthumously as a god, the last honor conferred upon him by the Senate, within a month of his death.

Augustus. Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome.Through Feb. 9. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris. March 19 through July 13.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024