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Roman Art, From One Imperial Line Essay

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Updated: Dec 4th, 2021


There can be no doubt as to the fact that, unlike art in ancient Greece, Roman art, during Rome’s Imperial period, was being often created for propaganda purposes. At the same time, it is important to understand that the artistic methods of winning public support, associated with art being used as an instrument of propaganda throughout the Imperial era, varied significantly. Whereas Julio-Claudians considered art as the instrument of instilling Roman citizens with the sense of Imperial pride – thus, assuring their loyalty, Antonines and Severans could not think of art outside the concept of entertainment. This can be explained by the fact that, ever since the Imperial form of government had firmly established itself in Rome, Roman citizens began to undergo the process of racial marginalization, which was depriving them of idealistic properties of their character to an ever-larger extent. This was the reason why Rome was being sacked by Gothic barbarians with such amazing ease in 5th century A.D. – by that time, Roman citizens have been reduced to the crowd of degenerates, solemnly preoccupied with seeking entertainment (gladiator fights) and with practicing perverse sex. Therefore, Roman Imperial art can be divided into two propagandistic sub-categories: high and low. In this paper, we will focus on discussion of the artistic campaign waged by Augustus Octavian (high), as not just being more effective, in comparison to artistic campaigns waged by latter Emperors, but also as such that remained unsurpassable in its aesthetic value, until the very collapse of Roman Empire.


One of the reasons why, before 27 B.C., Octavian had found himself constantly participating in military conflicts with his former allies, such as Sextus Pompeius and Mark Antony, is because he was trying to put an end to dynastic quarrels between rich and influential Romans, while rightly considering them as counter-productive to Rome’s national integrity. However, the ending of Rome’s civil instability corresponded to only a half of his political agenda – Octavian strived for nothing less than fully restoring the moral health of Roman citizens, while imposing his authority all over the Empire. The validity of this thesis is best illustrated by Augustus of Prima Porta Sculpture, which depicts Octavian as an embodiment of Roman traditional military, political, and aesthetic virtues. Unlike sculptures of Republican Rome, Augustus of Prima Porta heavily draws from the Greek artistic tradition of anatomical idealism. Octavian is depicted as being entitled with both: physical strength and wiseness. Statue emanates the aura of calmness and confidence – it is nothing but Horace’s idea “By obeying the gods, O Roman, that you will rule the world” personified in marble. There is not even a single trace of physical degeneracy can be found about Octavian’s facial features, which appear as being Nordic. In its turn, this subconsciously assures spectators that Emperor’s political decisions cannot be affected by his perceptional irrationality in principle. Also, the artist had intentionally strengthened the “childlike” qualities of Octavian’s appearance, to increase the sculpture’s emotional appeal.

Sculpture’s composition and its ideological context imply Octavian being in favor with Gods (the little figure of an angel by Octavian’s feet) and that it is namely serving citizens’ interests, which represent Emperor’s foremost priority. Even though it emanates the spirit of authority, Octavian is shown as a “benefactor” of his people rather than a “tyrant”, preoccupied with deriving pleasure out of exercising political powers over vast areas as a “thing in itself”. This is the reason why the sculpture features Senator’s toga, wrapped around Octavian’s waist – even though he used to be praised by his contemporaries as “sovereign Emperor”, Octavian never stopped stressing out that was simply “first among citizens”. The inclusion of the Senator’s toga as one of the most important elements of the sculptural composition emphasizes Octavian’s dedication to dealing with matters of state. At the same time, the way he holds it, suggests that Emperor would never hesitate to resort to the authoritarian method of governing if circumstances required. In its turn, this reveals the fact that, even during Octavian’s reign, the idea of democracy had acquired largely decorative properties. It is exactly the fact that Octavian was able to subject Senate to his unilateral authority, which gained him immense popularity among ordinary Romans.

Augustus of Prima Porta explains the rational subtleties of Octavian’s “divine ordainment” – the figures engraved on his armor tell the stories of Octavian’s military exploits. He is shown as about to address troops with a speech. We can say that Augustus of Prima Porta portrays Octavian as a political figure, military leader, and orator – thus, legitimizing his political authority in citizens’ eyes. The sculpture was meant to be displayed in front of a dark background, which again, would only strengthen the ideological effects of its semantic message – by viewing Augustus of Prima Porta, spectators were expected to think of their Emperor as representing light while assuming that his enemies represent darkness. After having said that, we also need to mention that this particular Octavian sculpture (just as many others), has been produced in considerable numbers, to be featured in just about every Roman town. Therefore, it will not be an exaggeration, on our part, to suggest that Octavian Augustus was a supreme psychologist (his sculptures could only be produced upon his approval), as he knew how art can address people’s subconscious anxieties. Moreover, he seems to have been aware of what causes people to have these anxieties in the first place. It is namely such his awareness that allowed him to psychologically manipulate his subjects, within a context of pursuing his political agenda. At the same time, Octavian would never resort to art as the instrument of political propaganda, while utilizing it to appeal to citizens’ animalistic instincts, which became a commonplace practice among Antonines and Severans.


As we have mentioned earlier, during the early phase of Imperial Rome’s history, Roman elites utilized art to strengthen citizens’ sense of national identity. This explains why Octavian’s reign is closely associated with the construction of triumphant arcs, public libraries, and state legislative buildings. Octavian’s vision of art was undeniably political, but he primarily thought of it as the instrument of improving citizens’ existential quality. This is why Roman art, during Octavian’s era, is best described as such that was meant to inspire, rather than to entertain. In the 3rd-5th centuries A.D., this was no longer the case. By that time, Roman Emperors became solemnly concerned with seeking public support among “plebs”, which explains why it was named during this period in Roman history that Roman art had adopted utterly realistic and even graphic subtleties. During Octavian’s reign, the public depictions of figures of political authority were used to instill citizens with a sense of loyalty by representing these figures as harmonically developed human beings. In later centuries, the situation had changed dramatically. Although Roman art never ceased to function as the tool of propaganda, the very essence of this propaganda underwent a complete transformation, because, by that time, the notion of physical and intellectual perfection no longer appealed to Romans. This is the reason why, from 3rd century A.D. onwards, many Roman Emperors were being intentionally depicted as physically inadequate, so that Roman marginalized masses could psychologically relate to them.


Kleiner, Fred “Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History”. NY: Cengage Learning, 2008.

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