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In What Ways did Augustus use Visual Depiction - Dissertation Sample

09 Mar 2017Dissertation Samples

In what ways did Augustus use visual depiction of mythical storys

“I built the following structures: the senate house and the Chalcidicum adjoining it; the temple of Apollo on the Palatine with its porticoes; the temple of the deified Julius; the Lupercal; the portico at the Circus Flaminius, which I allowed to be called Octavia after the name of the man who had built an earlier portico on the same site; the state box at the Circus Maximus; the temples of Jupiter the Smiter and Jupiter the Thunderer on the Capitoline; the temple of Quirinius; the temples of Minerva and Queen Juno and of Jupiter Freedom on the Aventine; the temple of the Lares at the head of the Sacred Way; the temple of the Penates on the Velia; the temple of Youth and the temple of the Great Mother on the Palatine.”


The reign of the emperor Augustus marks a watershed in Roman history. Before Augustus, the Roman Republic had an ideal adverse to the idea of kingship, with a political system combining monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. The Roman Republic perpetuated an image of itself as austere, and as upholding traditional “family values”. However, Republican Rome certainly had a grand scheme of building-works, and increasingly celebrated its meteoric ascent to power with statues and buildings in honour both of real-life senators, and of the mythological founders of Rome and those connected with the Roman ideal.

However, Augustus’ position as the first emperor of Rome was completely unprecedented. For that reason, he sought to legitimise his illegitimate power by recourse to divine sanction. This was a way to cause people to think of Augustus as having been particularly blessed by the gods, and thus, to have some kind of special connection with them. Indeed, the greatness of Augustus’ power made him a semi-divine figure, and we notice that to this purpose, Augustus used idealised images of himself which were placed all over Italy, not only in Rome alone. The spirit of the emperor was thought to inhabit the statue itself, rather as the spirit of a god was thought to inhabit the statue representation, such that the emperor’s statue had quasi-magical powers, just as the statue of a god was thought to be able to confer religious favours by the correct propitiation. Therefore, it is clear that it was not unknown for Rome to plan and build on a large-scale, Augustus’ position and the scale of his building project were without precedent.

As can be seen from the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, written by Augustus himself and inscribed on his mausoleum, not only were great buildings put into construction, but so were public works (such as aqueducts) great spectacles of gladiatorial shows and naval battles were put on and large sums of money from his private fortune were donated for the public good. These, along with the large amount of coinage minted during Augustus’ reign, all went towards showing the emperor as the saviour of Rome, and devoted to his people. Augustus achieved this grand scheme of propagating and legitimising his image by cleverly using mythological motifs in all of the huge projects mentioned above. I shall be focussing on three specific examples of Augustus’ visual use of mythological image in order to show how his aims were achieved.


It is easy to over look coinage when evaluating the visual imagery of a culture. Coins are small, and everyday; they are just as familiar to us today as they would have been to the Romans, unlike many of the grander buildings, such as temples and alters, with which Augustus beautified the city of Rome. However, by the fact that they are so commonplace, they become a powerful tool for image manipulation and propaganda. Augustus knew this fact well; he had to (somewhat ironically) strongly ally himself with the city of Rome (urbs Roma) in order to justify the fact that his predecessor had broken up the age-old Roman Republic.

The Battle of Actium, in 31 BC was crucial for Augustus’ image. As the victor over Antony (under the sway of Cleopatra and eastern kingship), Augustus had a golden opportunity after the battle to present himself as the saviour and preserver of Rome and her ideals. Coins dating from just after the battle show Augustus in full military regalia on one side, with the inscription CAESAR DIVI F meaning ‘the son of the divine Caesar’. On the obverse, the heads of Roman divinities or personifications, such as ‘Pax’ (Peace) and Venus, the goddess of love, are found.

This associates Augustus with the traditional Greco-Roman pantheon, and with the supremely legitimising foundation-myth of Rome, namely, that of Aeneas, the Trojan hero, whose divine mother was Venus herself. The association with ‘Peace’ makes it clear that Augustus is seen as the saviour and upholder of Rome (despite inaugurating a new style of governance which relied on one man, rather than the combined model favoured by the Roman Republic) against the eastern, and therefore effeminate and degenerate Antony, under the sway of the last of the Ptolemies, the licentious pharaoh Cleopatra.

Building Projects – the Forum Romanum and the Forum Augusti

Augustus made Rome a city worthy to be the head of a vast and powerful empire. Augustus laid claim to having refounded Rome, so extensive was his programme of building public works and monuments. The impact was immense, and gave the city a cohesiveness and beauty that Rome had lacked in the Republic, though some private citizens had attempted to aggrandize the city, though in a far less successful manner. However, Augustus had to go about this building project in a tactful way. He could not afford to treat the city in an entirely autocratic tradition (no matter how close to the reality this autocracy would have been) because this would have proved highly unpopular and would also have been very antipathetic to ideals of (Republican) Rome, which had never favoured kingship under any form. In which case, Augustus had to work with the fabric of Rome as he found it, rather than razing the entire city to the ground in order to leave a clean canvas for a megalomaniac building project.

Luckily, there were already certain spaces in the city of Rome that allowed for revitalisation and regeneration, rather than completely new and unprecedented building works. One of these was the Forum Romanum (or Roman Forum) located at the heart of the city, next to the Forum of Julius Caesar, started by that emperor and also completed by Augustus. Here, Augustus really adapted the old fabric of the city to suit the image of the new regime. This shows us that Augustus did not necessary need inscriptions (of the kind found on other public buildings, such as his mausoleum or the Ara Pacis, or even on coins as discussed above) in order to connect his deeds and achievements and the name of Augustus with the ancient past and tradition of Rome.

It was enough to build in the traditional political and commercial heart of the city, an area with great historic resonance, in order to achieve this desired effect. The Forum was revamped as a celebration of Augustus (and his family) by the clever manipulation of existing and new structures. For example, Augustus dedicated a new temple to Caesar in 29 BC, called the Temple of the Divine Julius (Augustus was of course keen to propagate the cult of the emperor, no less his predecessors than himself) in the existing Roman Forum. Augustus also bought land north of the Roman Forum, and completed a new Forum Augusti, in the manner of Julius Caesar. In the new Forum Augusti, Augustus built a temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger). He had vowed to build this temple at Philippi, a town in northern Greece.

This was where the murder of Caesar was avenged in the battles of 42 BC, by the defeat of all but the navy of the Republican forces, headed by Cassius and Brutus. This temple proclaimed the glorious past, with statues of triumphatores and elogia (short maxims or sayings). These recalled the careers and achievements of the eminent Romans who had secured victory in past battles. In this way, Augustus used the Roman pantheon (for example, Mars the God of War) in order to make ‘divine’ his defeat of the Republican forces at Philippi a few years previously. He also located a temple dedicated to Julius Caesar in the existing Forum, a place already strongly associated with the Roman Republic and its ideals. This was a clever marriage of existing Roman tradition with the new ultimate dictatorship of the divine Augustus, all the more powerful because backed up by the gods themselves.

Building Works – the Ara Pacis Augustae

The Ara Pacis Augustae (The Altar of the Augustan Peace) was one of the noblest works of the Augustan age, and differs from the temple to Mars Ultor in so far as it was not a glorification of military success, but a monument to the peace (the Pax Augusta) that Augustus had succeeded in bringing to the Roman empire. It was a sacrificial altar, constructed under the orders of the Roman Senate, on behalf of Augustus. It was dedicated in 9 BC, and was built on the Campus Martius (the field of Mars, located outside the city walls) and it commemorated the safe return of Augustus from Gaul and Spain in 13 BC. The actual sacrificial altar was found inside of a rectangular enclosure. It has many scenes, probably showing the procession and sacrifice that accompanied its dedication, which are depicted on its sides in a bas-relief, now heavily restored.

There is one scene, the most significant, which shows Augustus, Agrippa (Augustus’ right-hand man), Julius and Tiberius taking part in this religious tradition, accompanied by the lictores, religious officials and other heads of state. This gives us an idea of how Augustus wanted the Roman government to be seen as legitimising his reign, along with the gods themselves. On the shorter sides are four panels, showing reliefs of various things such as birds, small animals, garlands and sacrificial implements. On the west side there is a panel showing Aeneas sacrifices a sow to the Penates (Roman household gods, along with the Lares and Vesta). The altar in Augustus’ time stood outside, beside the Via Flaminia. On the east side, facing this street, there is a panel showing Terra Mater (or a personification of Mother Earth) holding two young babies.

A figure on the left hand side is riding a swan (possibly the birth of Venus, or else a personification of the air). On the right hand side another figure rides on the back of a sea-monster, and this possibly personifies sea-breezes. Below this in the middle are a sheep and a cow. There is a depiction of an urn and reeds, probably symbolic of a river to the left. On the right are some waves, representative of the sea as a whole. The entire allegory is both of the fertile lands of Italy (the implicit message is that this is due to the leadership of the divine Augustus, who is shown in the procession scenes as mentioned) and of Augustus’ recent victory. Augustus is thus associating himself with all the traditional symbols of peace and prosperity (heavily tied to the idea of the fecundity of the land in this agricultural-reliant society), though these are all cleverly constructed around emphasising the absolute primacy and triumph of Augustus, both military and political.


Augustus’ famous boast, that he had found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble, was something of a self-aggrandising exaggeration. Nevertheless, it is not without some truth; Augustus rebuilt Rome to an unprecedented extent, and he always had in mind the goal of legitimising (through various differing visual mythological representations) his rather hard-won and bloody dictatorship.


  • Cary, D., and H.H.Scullard (eds.), A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine Third Edition (London: Macmillan, 1975)
  • Huskinson, J. (ed.), Experiencing Rome: Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire (London: Routledge, 2000)
  • Janes, D., Romans and Christians (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing Ltd., 2002)
  • Zanker, P., The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus Trans.A.Shapiro (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988)

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