Control & the Imagery of Power: The Case of Emperor Augustus

In Episode 1 of SHAPS 2021 ‘Control’ podcast series, Dr Roslynne Bell (Honorary Research Fellow, Classics & Archaeology) (@gertrudebella) talks with Dr Henry Reese about the use of imagery to disseminate the political messages of the Emperor Augustus (27BCE–14CE) throughout the Roman Empire.

Listen on the player below or on your favourite podcast platform.


Welcome back to SHAPS Forum. I’m Henry Reese, and today I’ll be speaking with Dr Roslynne Bell, Honorary Research Fellow in SHAPS. Dr Bell is an art historian and a classicist, and an expert in the art and iconography of Ancient Rome.

Today, we’ll be taking a journey back to ancient Rome to discuss a topic of perennial fascination to anyone interested in leadership, power and public relations. We’ll be talking about Emperor Augustus and his control or attempts at control over his public image. This is a visually oriented episode, so please make sure you check out our accompanying blog post to see some of the images that we’ll be talking about today. Google ‘SHAPS Forum blog’, and you should find us without any difficulty.

This episode also marks the first instalment in our 2021 theme of ‘Control’. Each year SHAPS adopts a special theme, which we explore from the perspectives of scholars working within different disciplines in the school and beyond. In 2020, we explored the theme of ‘Disaster & Change’ from a number of different angles. In our last episode, Professor Mike Arnold helped us wrap up this series by thinking about the past, present and future of death, mourning and the disposal of the dead.

Now, as we get into 2021, our focus will turn to the topic of control in all its facets. The notion of control is something that has been turning up increasingly often in all kinds of different contexts in recent years, from the Brexit campaign, with its call to ‘take back control’, to cultural fashions like the Marie Kondo phenomenon, through to the criminological and sociological theories on self-control and socialisation, or political discourses around borders and immigration. 

Everywhere we look, we find evidence of an intense preoccupation with control. A desire for and a drive to control can be identified as a factor common to some of the most important processes underway in the world today. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a number of issues around control with new urgency, highlighting tensions between personal liberty and control of public health.

For example, in 2021, we will look at new forms of control that are arising in the twenty-first century: from Shoshana Zuboff’s concept of ‘surveillance capitalism’, to ‘mindfulness’, which Ronald E. Purser has critiqued as a technique for social control and self-pacification.

We’ll be listening to philosophers on the subject of government welfare and the drive to control the unemployed; we’ll be listening to historians on how ideas about control have been applied in the spheres of medicine and psychiatry. We’ll be tracing also the long history of ideas, regimes and practices related to control. So, what better place to start than by looking right back to the ancient world and exploring an iconic historical figure and his quest to control his public image? And we have with us an exceptionally well-qualified guide to introduce us to this topic: Dr Roz Bell, welcome to the podcast.


Well, thanks, Henry. It’s a pleasure to be here.


Great to have you. So, let’s get started then by thinking a bit about Emperor Augustus. Can you set the scene for us? Who was he and why was he so important in the history of ancient Rome?


Well, of course, first and foremost, we know him as the founder of the Roman Empire. I mean, he is Rome’s first emperor. He’s a man born in 63 BCE into an old, wealthy, but perhaps not overly distinguished, Roman family. He rises to prominence in 44 BCE, when his great-uncle on the maternal side, Julius Caesar, is assassinated. Augustus is named in Caesar’s will as Caesar’s adopted son and heir, and this immediately throws him into the cut-throat world of Roman politics at the tender age of 19.

Rather than sink under the weight of opposition from all of the powerful men around him, young Augustus, although technically we should call him Octavius, as he was known, or Octavian until 27 BCE, when the Senate grants him the ancient title ‘Augustus’, meaning ‘venerable’ – but let’s just call him Augustus throughout, just for the sake of clarity. And so, he’s rising to power and influence at a very early age and, ultimately, he’s overcoming all of his enemies, most notably, of course, initially, Julius Caesar’s assassins, famously, Brutus and Cassius, and then, of course, Mark Antony, who starts out as a rather uncomfortable ally, but ends up, of course, as Augustus’s bitter enemy.

Ultimately, the authority that Augustus is given by the Senate: titles such as imperator, which doesn’t, in the Roman world, mean Emperor, perhaps, in the sense that we understand it but, rather, refers to his role as commander in chief of Rome’s armies; but, also, roles like tribune or ‘the protector of the plebs’; censor, or the overseer, if you like, of Roman morals. All of these are usually temporary appointments, but these are ultimately conferred on Augustus for life, and this effectively brings an end to the Roman Republic and ushers in the age of the Roman Empire. So, it’s a far more complex process than that, as I’m sure you can imagine. But that’s really it in a nutshell.

So, really, Augustus is one of the central figures, not just of Roman history but in western civilisation as a whole, and I think many would argue, possibly also one of the most controversial. Interestingly, he’s regarded perhaps as one of the ‘good’ emperors by our ancient sources. And we have to remember that most of the sources, the written sources, that we have for Augustus, are writing at least a century after he’s dead. Certainly, by this time, writers have a lot of bad emperors to compare him to. So, generally he’s seen in a relatively positive light. But of course, we have to ask ourselves, how much are our ancient sources – so, biographers like Suetonius, historians like Tacitus – influenced by the image that Augustus carefully controls and crafts for posterity?

Certainly, Augustus leaves us with the picture of a man who didn’t aspire to autocracy; a man who, far from destroying the Republic, he would claim, actually restores it. So, not a king but, of course, he prefers famously to be called princeps – Rome’s first citizen – and he’s using terms like primus inter pares – so, ‘first among equals’. And so, this, of course, leaves historians and you know, even art historians like myself, with the task today, the fascinating task, of trying to tease out, if you like, the truth of Augustus, from the evidence that he himself and others leave behind.


So, with that in mind, what does make Augustus so special in terms of his self-representation compared to other emperors?


There’s no doubt that presenting the proper image to their contemporaries and, of course, to posterity is of enormous importance to most if not all Roman emperors. I mean, today, if you visit any Roman site across the Empire – be it in Britain or Germany, North Africa, Turkey – you’ll see the remains of monuments, imperial monuments, that attest to the accomplishments and the ideologies of a host of Roman emperors – things like triumphal arches, temples, palaces. Likewise, I mean, museums around the world are full of portraits of Roman emperors. These would have been statues that at one time, would have been displayed in cities and towns across the Roman Empire. All of this material is clearly attesting to the fact that the dissemination, the control and dissemination of public image is of enormous concern to all the powerful rulers of the Roman Empire.

But amongst them all, Augustus really stands head and shoulders above everybody, for his absolute mastery of his public image. And I would argue, I think, that he’s really the first individual in classical antiquity to truly exploit all the potential that art has as a medium for visual propaganda. Now, I say that, but of course, it comes with a lot of caveats. I mean, firstly, the use of the term art, I use it in its loosest sense, but none of the monuments we’ll be discussing are created simply for art’s sake; they all serve a political purpose.

Likewise, propaganda, even though it’s a Latin word – the meaning as we know it today wasn’t known, wasn’t in the Roman vocabulary, so there’s the danger of an anachronistic use of the word, if you like. But, nevertheless, the use of material, be it literary or visual, to consciously model public opinion, was certainly a familiar concept in the Roman world. And it’s really Augustus who is the emperor who sets the standard that everybody else follows in terms of his use of visual arts to convey both the image of the princeps and also Imperial ideology.


So, does the control he exerts over his public image extend beyond the visual arts?


It certainly does. I mean, ancient sources make it clear that so many aspects of Augustus’s life, be it his public appearances, his speaking style, even down to the gestures that he uses when he’s speaking, all of these are highly controlled, and deliberate. So, he’s an individual that’s obviously very aware of the importance of presenting the right image both to his contemporaries, of course, and to posterity, as I’ve mentioned.

I mean, we know he wrote an autobiography. Unfortunately, very few fragments of this survive, but it survives in antiquity, and it’s drawn on by later historians such as Suetonius, who as I said, is writing perhaps a century or so after Augustus. He includes a lot of the information from Augustus’s autobiography in his own work, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. So, we get a flavour of what the original text must have looked like.

Augustus also made sure that his very long list of accomplishments – this is a text known as the Res Gestae, literally ‘things done’ – this long list of accomplishments was recorded and set up on large bronze plaques outside his mausoleum in the Campus Martius in Rome. The plaques unfortunately have now been lost. But we have copies of the text in both Greek and Latin, inscribed on the wall of the Temple of Augustus in Ankara in Turkey. This is very clear evidence that Augustus made sure that word of his accomplishments was disseminated to the very far reaches of the Empire.

Reproduction of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti on the wall of the Ara Pacis Museum, Rome, originally inscribed by Mussolini in 1938. Photographer: G. Dallorto via Wikimedia Commons

And I think it’s worth reflecting that this concern for control of image by public figures, be they politicians or celebrities, of course, is something that we’re all too familiar with in the modern world. I mean, the use of art in the service of the state, or for political or propagandist purposes, is really a time-honoured tradition. Rulers, politicians have always been aware of presenting the right sort of image. I mean, we could spend the whole podcast talking about recent examples of the manipulation of visual imagery, perhaps by people like Donald Trump or even more overtly, by Vladimir Putin.

For classicists, particularly resonant here, and perhaps listeners will recall, the publication of the infamous image of Putin in scuba gear, emerging from the Black Sea holding two ancient amphorae by their handles, which of course is just a disaster. Any classicist would cringe at the mere sight! But of course, these were promoted as ancient jars that he just happened to find while he was out diving. This was an image that was quickly exposed as being completely staged. And of course, who can forget the holiday pictures of Putin shirtless on horseback? I mean, we all want to forget, but we can’t. But it says much I think about the Russian president’s cultivation of his macho image, if you like.

And fortunately, I haven’t seen too many pics of shirtless Australian politicians recently, but I think, you know, politicians here are no less immune to the benefits of the perfect public image. When I first arrived in Australia a couple of years ago, I recall a minor scandal that broke out when it was revealed that Scott Morrison’s dirty trainers had been photoshopped out of a family portrait and replaced with a clean pair of shoes. I don’t know if you remember that – the scandal that rocked the nation! And of course, when the deception was revealed, it made media headlines. So, I mean, it seems like a trivial thing, but I think it shows the levels of concern of projecting just the right image to the public. I think in this case, the irony was, if I remember correctly, whoever did the photoshopping ended up giving the prime minister two left feet. So we could say that they lost the symbolism battle there all round.

Anyway, I think the great advantage that Roman emperors had over modern politicians was that they could create and maintain the perfect image because relatively few people saw the Emperor up close. I mean, there are no investigative journalists in ancient Rome, no paparazzi, no gossip magazines, no tabloid newspapers. So, there was really no effective way of revealing the fiction to the greater populace. So, the sorts of propaganda fails that we see with modern politicians were completely unthinkable under the Roman Empire, where the Emperor had complete control.

We might also argue that the use and control of visual imagery was more important to politicians in the ancient world than those today. We have to remember, of course, that perhaps only 10 per cent of the people living in ancient Rome would have been able to read and understand Augustus’s Res Gestae, where he set out his long list of accomplishments in the Campus Martius. And, of course, once you leave the capital, the percentage of the literate population becomes even smaller.

So, this, of course, makes the mastery of visual imagery as a means of conveying messages to the people of the Empire even more important. This could take a multitude of forms – things like pictures on coins, honorific statuary, architectural sculpture. Even buildings themselves – in terms of what they were made of, how they were decorated, where they were placed – can send powerful messages. So, you don’t need to be able to read or write to understand these messages. The message that they convey can be extremely powerful.

Gold Aureus of Augustus, from Lyon, France (10BCE). Photographer: Yann via Wikimedia Commons, 2018


I think that’s so fascinating, the idea of recognisability, too. I read just last night, in a very different context, thinking about the nineteenth century, about how New York reporters after the Civil War couldn’t pick Ulysses S. Grant out of a crowd, when he was meant to arrive for an interview at the major train station. So even when photography is widespread, this idea of someone being recognisable is so … It’s just so different to the way we think about it today.

So, perhaps let’s return to this question of what sets Augustus apart from the crowd of other Roman emperors when it comes to control of his image …


Yeah, well, absolutely. He stands, as I say, head and shoulders above everybody else. As I mentioned, it becomes standard Imperial practice to mint, for example, propagandist coins or to set up Imperial portrait statues, to commission grandiose temples and public buildings, all of which, of course, are decorated with message-bearing architectural sculpture.

But Augustus is really the first to exploit the full potential of all of these media in a systematic, sustained and extremely sophisticated way. So, I think one of the truly extraordinary things about Augustus is the way in which he’s clearly aware of and shows an aptitude for the control of his image. Even at the very beginning of his public life. And it’s an image that he’s able to adapt easily as circumstances dictate.

And I think that we can see this most obviously in his portraiture, where it becomes clear that proper self-representation was of enormous importance to him. I mean, we have between 200–300 portraits of Augustus extant from the ancient world. And this doesn’t include things like images on coins, or gems, and cameos. And this is far more than any other emperor, and really marks the beginning of a longstanding practice of mass circulation of Imperial portraits.

Gemma Augustea, showing Augustus being crowned with Tiberius stepping down from a chariot at left with his mother Livia behind (c 9–12 CE or later). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, 59171

So high quality official prototypes, for example, are created in Rome, and then are copied and sent out to the provinces, set up in a multiplicity of contexts, really, throughout the Empire. So, it’s really getting the image of the emperor out there. And it becomes very much the standard practice whenever a new emperor comes to power: get the honorific statues out to the provinces, so everybody can see now who is in charge.

And, for Augustus, this is really a process that begins very early on in his political career. Remember, as I said, he’s only 19 when he enters the political arena after Caesar’s assassination. And, really, he’s immediately taking advantage of putting his physical representation out there. I mean, he’s coming to prominence at a young age, and his adoption by Caesar puts him in immediate competition with extremely powerful figures like Mark Antony, of course, who before this is really the shining light in the Caesarean political faction in Rome. Antony, of course, is a mature, experienced political and military campaigner.

Augustus also immediately inherits a legion of other powerful, well-established political opponents. These are men who don’t hesitate to point out the youthful Augustus’s shortcomings. So, he’s criticised, for example, for his lack of nobility. Augustus’s father is what’s known as a novus homo, a ‘new man’, which means that he’s the first of his family to serve in the Senate. It’s only Augustus’s adoption by Julius Caesar that elevates him to the patrician class. So, he’s criticised for that.

He’s criticised, perhaps rightly so, for his lack of accomplishments and experience. He’s also well known to have rather delicate health, shall we say, he’s not a robust man, health-wise. And of course, in Roman society, ill health can be associated with unmanliness, which might explain the hints that we get in some sources of Augustus’s effeminacy, and perhaps even possible homosexuality.

So, he’s faced with political opponents, powerful men who are throwing around all of these accusations. And, I mean, these are men who routinely show themselves in their own portraiture as mature, as serious, even severe sometimes figures, sort of weighed down by their dedication and responsibility for the Republic. So, a popular portrait style at the time, is known as veristic – so, showing these mature men warts and all, if you like – depictions with furrowed brows, and hollow cheeks and wrinkles, all of these traditional marks of age and experience.

And as you can imagine, the young Augustus can’t compete with this sort of artistic tradition of the ideal Roman politician. So, instead, we see that his early portraits embrace his youthfulness, but also his military abilities, be they real or, certainly at this stage, exaggerated. So, for example, in 43 BCE, we get a gilded equestrian statue of Augustus erected in the Roman Forum. And of course, this is the very heart of the city, the political, the religious, the commercial hub of ancient Rome. It’s a statue that’s voted on by the Senate and People, it’s an extraordinary honour, given Augustus’s age, and the fact that he still has yet to hold public office, much less officially lead an army.

So, we have the statue set up, and immediately we start getting coins – they’re minted by Augustus’s allies, showing Augustus mounted heroically on this galloping horse. Shades of Vladimir Putin, perhaps! But it’s important for the image to get out there, particularly when you realise that probably the majority of these coins being minted are being used to pay the troops. So, it’s getting the youthful vigorous image of Augustus, the military man, out among the Roman army.

Later, as Augustus’s political and military career becomes more established, we get the development, not surprisingly, of the more mature, more confident, portrait types. So, he starts to be shown perhaps with a furrowed brow, a sharply turned head, slightly wild hair, the epitome of what we would call perhaps Hellenistic pathos; so, calling on older artistic traditions to add something extra to his image.

And at the same time, we get images on coins proclaiming loudly that Augustus is Divi filius. So, ‘son of the now deified Julius Caesar’; because, of course, it can’t hurt your political aspirations to be known as the son of a god. I mean, why wouldn’t you if you could! So he’s clearly presenting himself as a man determined to avenge Caesar’s assassination, of course, and then after Caesar’s murderers have been dealt with, he then of course deals with the threat posed by Cleopatra and, of course, his one-time ally turned bitter enemy, Mark Antony, who, of course, he defeated at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE.

So, it’s an ever-evolving process. And once we get to the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, we hit the emergence of yet another new idealised portrait, known as the Prima Porta statue-type. This is named after a famous statue found at Augustus’s wife, Livia’s villa at Prima Porta, and the message is very different. So, listeners might want to have a look at the photo that we’ll post on the blog site to have a look at what this looks like. But it’s a statue that deliberately emulates models from classical Athens in particular, the Doryphoros, which is a very famous – the Doryphoros means ‘spear bearer’ – a great work by the fifth century BCE sculptor Polykleitos.

So, the Prima Porta type shows Augustus as a confident, powerful man. He’s dressed as imperator, again, commander-in-chief of Rome’s armies, but he’s also in the process of making a public address. So probably a speech to the troops. And we see him with his arm outstretched in what’s called the adlocutio gesture; so, making this oratorical gesture of making a speech. So, he’s clearly identifying himself as a soldier; he’s referencing his own military accomplishments on behalf of Rome. It’s an image that conveys a message of overt strength, and it’s filled with all of the values that Romans liked. So, things like auctoritas, ‘authority’, ‘power’, and virtus, ‘manliness and strength’, and gravitas, sort of ‘dignity’. It really hits you in the face with these sorts of messages.

Prima Porta Augustus (first century CE). Photographer: Till Niermann via Wikipedia Commons. Vatican Museum, 2290

But at the same time, it has a much more subtle meaning as well. So, if we take a look at the cuirass, or the breastplate, that he’s wearing, we can see that it’s decorated with a multitude of mythological figures, all of which come with their own symbolism. So, for example, the sphinxes – obviously, these are a reference to the defeat of Cleopatra, and the conquest of Egypt. But we also find the sun god Sol, and Aurora the goddess of the dawn, clearly symbolising the beginning of a new golden age in Rome. There’s also Tellus, Earth Mother, who’s cradling two infants, and holding an overflowing cornucopia. So obviously, the overwhelming reference here is to fertility and to the prosperity of Rome, that now comes as a result of the end of decades of civil wars, and a new era of peace – the Pax Augusta, if you like, ‘Augustan peace’, which Augustus ushers in. So, it’s clear that this is an image that Augustus fosters and promotes.

The Prima Porta statue type actually accounts for more than half of the extant portraits that we have of Augustus. And in fact – how convenient is this? – just last week, I think it was on Thursday, news came that another marble portrait of this type has been found in Isernia, a small town in central Italy, that was a chance find during repairs to a collapsed wall. So, all of the time we’re adding to this body of portraits that we have.

I’ll just make a final point on the Prima Porta. What’s noteworthy is that Augustus is maybe around 33–35 years of age when the Prima Porta statue was created. I mean, scholars do debate the actual date. So, at least he appears to be about this age. And it’s an idealised image. But to a large extent, it also tallies, in many respects, with a physical description that we have of Augustus, from Suetonius, who, in his prime, tells us that Augustus was unusually handsome, with piercing bright eyes.

Just as an aside, for those that are interested, it’s interesting that Suetonius makes no mention of Augustus’s eye colour. The historian Pliny the Elder, in his Historia Naturalis, tells us that Augustus’s eyes were grey like a horse. And in fact, I listened to a recent lecture by the art historian John Pollini, who speculated that according to contemporary physiognomic theory, grey eye colour was indicative of a lack of humanity, and also timidity. So, this may be why Augustus’s grey eyes get left out of what is otherwise a fairly positive picture of the emperor by Suetonius. Anyway, an interesting aside.

Whatever its eye colour, the Prima Porta type becomes the standard image of Augustus for the remainder of his life and, certainly, the most iconic image of any emperor from Roman antiquity. And such is the control that Augustus exerts over his image that he will never look older than this in his portraits, even though he lives to the ripe old age of 75, which, for a Roman Emperor, is a fairly significant accomplishment. But certainly, it’s a very far cry from Suetonius’s description of Augustus in his latter years. Suetonius talks about Augustus’s few decayed teeth, his body marred with various blemishes including ringworm. So, I mean, that is certainly not the picture we’re getting in his later portraits. So, this Prima Porta type really is the iconic image that he develops and runs with if you like.


To follow on from that then, in terms of self-representation, is portraiture Augustus’s only concern?


No, certainly not – far from it. I think we can see that he really exerts if you like an obsessive control over the Augustus ‘brand’; what a terrible word to use, very anachronistic! But the Augustus ‘brand’ extends far beyond imperial portraiture. I mean, there is so much we could talk about here. But it really, actually encompasses the whole urban environment of ancient Rome. And we can see that Augustus exerts control over every facet of construction of planning and development of the city.

And the reason, of course, is it’s clear he understood that buildings – in terms of their location, their decoration, the materials, even what they were made from – could have an enormous impact, not just on the status of Rome, as the capital of a vast empire, but also and, perhaps more importantly, on perceptions of Augustus himself.

And I think that we can see this most clearly in Augustus’s famous boasts to have transformed Rome from a city of brick to a city of marble, which of course we get recorded in Suetonius. So, you might not know much about Augustus, but he’s — he’s the guy. He’s the guy that transformed the city of brick into a city of marble. And it sounds like hyperbole. You know, what a ridiculous exaggeration to make, but in fact, it appears to have had a reasonably solid basis in fact. Certainly, he seems to have used marble extensively in almost all of his urban building projects. I mean, so much so that the contemporary poet Ovid notes that mountains diminish as marble is dug from them.

So, literally, mountains are disappearing with all of the marble that Augustus is using. Certainly, archaeology attests the use of plenty of local Italian marbles. So, for example, from newly opened quarries, at a place called Luna, and I mean, this is modern Carrara. Of course, we’re still using Carrara marble today. So, lots of white marble in use. But I think what’s particularly noteworthy also is the quantity of coloured marbles that are being brought in from across the Empire at enormous cost to Augustus, from places like Numidia in Africa, Ionia in Greece, Phrygia in modern Turkey. And, yes, all of these are important as a sign of Augustus’s largesse, if you like, but also they’re symbolising the extent of the world that now is falling under Rome’s, and of course, therefore, Augustus’s control. So, all these marbles are really making a powerful statement in that respect.

Henry, there’s so much we could say about the Augustan building program, if we had an entire series of podcasts on it! I mean, there are a multitude of structures, civic, religious, private, all of which show Augustus, I think, as the architect of a complex, often calculated, and certainly ever-evolving program of visual propaganda, all of which is designed with many aims. Perhaps most important is to present Augustus as the benevolent pater patriae, so the ‘father of his country’, if you like. But also, just as importantly, he presents himself as the founder of a new and prosperous Rome – a city that now, as Suetonius declares, was adorned as the dignity of the Empire demanded. So, he’s all about increasing the status of Rome and therefore, of course, his own status and power as well.

There are so many buildings, we could look at here; I encourage listeners if they’re interested, perhaps to just go and have a quick look, for example, at the Forum of Augustus that he builds that includes the magnificent Temple of Mars Ultor. Also, the Ara Pacis – the Altar of Augustan Peace – which is adorned with some absolutely stunning sculptural decoration of Augustus and the imperial family.

Model of the Forum of Augustus. Photographer: Bruce McAdam, 2009, via Wikimedia Commons
Ara Pacis Augustae (9BCE), reconstructed in 1938. Photographer: Carole Raddato, 2015 via Wikimedia Commons
Members of the Imperial Family on the Ara Pacis (9BCE). Photographer: MM via Wikimedia Commons

But I know that time is short. So, I thought maybe we could focus not on one of these well-known magnificent monuments, but rather on something on a much more humble scale, and perhaps the one structure that tells us more about Augustus’s masterful control of his own public image than any grandiose temple or basilica. Something that stands apart, amidst this urban magnificence and yet embodies, I think, the essence of Augustus’s public self-image, and that is his own house. Anyone who visits Rome nowadays will be familiar with the remains of these grand imperial palaces, palaces of Nero, of Domitian and others on the Palatine Hill, overlooking Circus Maximus.

But these only exist in that location, because in 41, or perhaps 40 BCE, young Octavius – of course, we call him Augustus, later Augustus, newly adopted by Julius Caesar at the very start of his political career, and almost a decade before he assumes sole control of the city, makes what is an extraordinary decision. And that is to sell his house near the Forum. Now remember, the Forum is Rome’s social, commercial and political hub. He sells his house near the Forum – exactly where an up-and-coming politician would want to live – and he buys a house on the Palatine Hill.

Why is he doing this? Well, in itself, the decision to move to the Palatine isn’t perhaps unusual. I mean, the Palatine has been one of the most fashionable districts in Rome since the mid-second century BCE, so people like the orator Cicero, and even Mark Antony had houses on the Palatine. But almost all of these were on the north slopes of the hill, overlooking the Forum, so you’re still close to that central hub of the city.

Augustus, however, sells his house near the Forum and buys, we are told, the house of the orator Quintus Hortentius Hortalus on the unfashionable southwest slope of the hill. So, unlike residences of later emperors, Augustus’s house is famed for its lack of pretension; and Suetonius in his biography describes the house, saying that Augustus lived in the modest dwelling of Hortentius which was remarkable neither for size nor elegance, having but short colonnades and columns of Alban stone – that refers to lapis albanus, which is peperino, basically a local tufa – and rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements. For more than 40 years, he used the same bedroom in winter and summer.

Now, what’s extraordinary is that we have the remains of a building that most scholars — and I should say, it’s still a little bit hotly contested as to exactly where Augustus’s house was — but we do have the remains of a building that most scholars, I think, would agree is the house of Augustus. Certainly, it’s a site that has incredibly complex archaeology, so it’s not easy to sort of tease out the various layers of habitation. But what we do have seems to conform closely to the structure that Suetonius described.

So, we have the remains of a two-storied house, built on a modest scale, maybe about 350 square metres. Originally, with four wings of relatively small rooms surrounding small peristyle courtyards. Of the best-preserved wing that we have, we see a mix of living and storage rooms, some extremely plainly decorated with simple black and white mosaic floors, relatively monochromatic wall paintings. These have been variously identified as storage rooms or guardrooms. I mean, certainly other rooms are more ornate. And, particularly famous, are two rooms, the ‘Room of the Masks’ and the ‘Room of the Pine Garlands,’ named after the fabulous wall paintings that have been recently identified by archaeologist Filippo Coarelli, as the bedrooms of Augustus and Livia themselves. Now this, of course, is pure speculation. I quite like it, because it fits in with some of the other things that I argue, in my forthcoming book on Augustus.

Room of the Pine Festoon, House of Augustus, Rome. Photographer: Carole Raddato, 2015, via Flickr

So, overall, what we see with the archaeology is very much in keeping with Suetonius’s description of the house as a modest residence, and it’s also very much in keeping with Augustus’s public persona. As we’ve seen, he promotes the image of being moderate, of being self-controlled. These are characteristics that are of utmost importance to him. But, as with all things Augustan, however, there’s always a deeper meaning to look for once you scratch the surface.

And while the house may be modest, its location’s anything but, and I think this is what explains why Augustus sold up and moved out to the southwest Palatine. In doing so, he inserts himself right into the middle of some of Rome’s most venerable and evocative landmarks. So, it’s really on the southwest Palatine where Rome’s story begins. It’s the place where the babies Romulus and Remus were discovered and raised. It’s where Romulus ultimately founds the city of Rome. And, in the Augustan age, many of the sites associated with Rome’s legendary foundation were still visible in Augustus’s day. So, for example, we have the Lupercal, so the cave in which the she wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus lived; we’ve got the ficus Ruminalis, the fig tree under which the wolf was discovered suckling the twins Romulus and Remus with the remains of Roma quadrata – the hill’s Romulean foundations – and, above all, the hut that many believed belonged to Romulus himself – and the historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus records that Augustus actually restores this hut twice. And in fact, if you visit the Palatine today, you can see the remains of Iron Age huts, situated mere metres away from the House of Augustus, that many associate today with this Romulean settlement.

But anyway, whatever the case, it’s clear that Augustus inserts himself into an area that’s full of evocative and tangible reminders of Rome’s foundation, which, of course, is perfectly suited to a politician who comes to style himself as the founder of a new Rome. So, it’s interesting to remember that when the Senate offers, in 27 BCE, Augustus the choice of a new title, he considers calling himself Romulus. That’s how close the connection is. But that, I think he decides — probably wisely — has too many connotations of monarchy and autocracy, I mean, which is essentially why, in the end, Caesar is assassinated, because people think that he wants to become a king. So, Augustus, perhaps wisely, says no to the title of Romulus and decides to call himself Augustus, ‘venerable one’, instead.

But here you can see he’s retaining that strong connection to Romulus as a founder of Rome, but in a much more subtle way, in a way that’s conveyed through links between his house and the legendary monuments, and sites. I mean, there’s a lot more we could say about this. I’m particularly interested, in my own work, on the relationship between the House of Augustus, the Temple of Victory, which is right next door, and the Temple of the Magna Mater [‘Great Mother’]. So, both of these are goddesses with longstanding connections to Rome and its foundations and also to Rome’s military successes. So, he’s being extremely wise where he builds his house; he can make it look modest, because it’s gaining grandeur from absolutely everything that surrounds it. And this is probably why, for all of its modesty, we get the poet Ovid describing it as a dwelling worthy of a god, because it’s surrounded by all of this symbolic magnificence, if you like.


That really does underscore as strongly as any of the other excellent examples you’ve given just the deliberation and skill and craft that is going into this image that Augustus is creating and investing himself in. That’s really extraordinary – especially when we realise that we’re dealing with a world with a population that is, adrift in a world of symbols, and visually very literate. This means a lot, I imagine, to the average Roman.


Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think it’s fair to say, and there’s been a lot of scholarship on the topic, that Romans perhaps were much more adept, if you like, at reading visual messages, perhaps than we are today, because of the levels of literacy, but also because they are literally surrounded by buildings that convey – buildings, all sorts of things – that convey these messages. So, I think it’s fair to say that an average Roman, shall we say, would be able to read an urban landscape better, perhaps, than somebody in the modern world, or perhaps they just would have given it a little bit more thought than perhaps we do today.


And I imagine that the messages that Augustus is so keen to send, then, certainly found their ways to their readers, if you like?


Yeah, for sure, we can see the reflection of a lot of these. A lot of the messages, shall we say, that Augustus is promulgating in artworks that are produced not on the imperial level, but by the people themselves. So, reflections of these values, reflections of the emperor and how he wants to be portrayed. Absolutely. It’s about sending the message out and allowing the people to use that in their own ways – encouraging them to do so, for sure.


I guess the impression that I got was that this very skilful regime of image crafting is happening across the Empire, that seems quite obviously, deliberate then. Are there any regional differences? Are there attempts to relate more closely to local styles in, say, Egypt or Palestine or Anatolia or something like that?


Yeah, for sure. You have, for example, when it comes to the image of an emperor, you have the official prototype created in Rome; the extent to which it’s disseminated, or the way that it perhaps appears in the provinces can differ extremely from province to province. So, in the West, in Rome, and in other Western provinces, there is no longstanding tradition of worshipping, for example, a living emperor as a god – that just simply doesn’t exist in that part of the Empire.

In the East, however, in places like you mentioned, Anatolia, in places like Asia Minor, we are coming from a completely different perspective. Egypt, another example, where Pharaohs are worshipped as living gods. So, the attitudes and representations of emperors are quite different in the East, although perhaps, you know, portrait styles, recognisable physiognomy, etc, transfers. Sometimes the context in which they’re displayed are quite different.

So, I’m thinking, in particular, of a magnificent city; I encourage any visitors to Turkey to go to Aphrodisias. It’s not really on the main tourist route, but it is a stunning city. The reason it’s stunning is that it has rich marble quarries and a long history of sculptors working there. So, it is a magnificent city. And it has the remains of a wonderful building decorated with sculpture, called the Sebasteion. Augustus in Greek is Sebastos [σεβαστός]. So, it’s a temple set up to worship the imperial family, and you get representations of Augustus, of the emperor Claudius, represented as gods in contexts that would be utterly, utterly unthinkable in Rome itself. So, Claudius, whom we know from the sources, perhaps, suffered from all sorts of physical impairments. Perhaps he had a stutter. But here is Claudius represented in magnificently heroic naked form, with billowing drapery, quelling personifications of the provinces. So, yeah, you would never find the living emperor represented that way in Rome, but magnificent differences can occur in the provinces for sure.

The Sebasteion at Aphrodisias, Turkey, constructed between c20–60CE. Photographer: Carole Raddato via Wikimedia Commons

Amazing. Thank you for that. The only other thing I was a bit unsure about was, I guess, about the influence or the legacy of these kinds of depictions of the emperor. You’ve suggested that there’s something unique and important about the scale and the level to which Augustus was invested in controlling his image. So, did that tradition not persist that strongly with subsequent emperors, or was it simply the case that he’d now set the blueprint that was to be followed?


He absolutely set the blueprint that was to be followed. I mean, Augustus is succeeded by his adopted son Tiberius. Tiberius is Augustus’s wife Livia’s son, by her first marriage. So, Augustus has appallingly bad luck in terms of heirs. So, he has his grandsons Gaius and Lucius, in whom he places all of his hopes and dreams for succession. They die relatively early, so in the end, he’s forced to adopt Tiberius, and probably not particularly happy about it. But, so, we have Livia’s son by her first marriage, becoming the second emperor.

And although Tiberius bears no blood relationship to Augustus, he appears remarkably similar to him in his portraits, as do all of the Julio-Claudian emperors, descendants of Augustus and Livia, who then take over. People like Claudius and Nero, all of whom look remarkably Augustus-like in their portraits. He has, for example, a very distinctive, short hairstyle with two very distinct pincer-like crab-claw locks at the front of his forehead. And, so, we see a whole host of Julio-Claudians represented in exactly the same way because of course, it’s to their advantage to emphasise this connection to Augustus.

When the Julio-Claudian dynasty comes to an end, we get the Flavians; we still have clearly the same recognition, if you like, of the importance of portraiture, but they are going out of their way in a different way to say, yes, we are in control, but we are something different, so we look different to Augustus. And so they have quite different facial features. Emperors, like Trajan and Hadrian, we have some fabulous portraits of them from throughout the Empire. So, it’s clear that Augustus starts a tradition that subsequent emperors recognise is important and valuable to them. But they all represent themselves in their own way. But nobody does it, I think – I might be biased, but I don’t think anybody does it like Augustus.


Absolutely. Right. Yeah. And I’m amazed by the point you made about the remaking of Rome in marble as well – that’s just incredible. Again, that gets at something quite important here.

So, Dr Roslynne Bell, thank you so much for giving us such a forensic deep dive into an iconic foundational example of the association of an image with political and imperial power. I’m sure many of us will think of resonances today very overtly. So, Dr Bell, thank you so much for telling us about Augustus and his image.


My absolute pleasure, Henry, any time! I could talk about this all day, but I won’t.


I might hold you to that. Thanks again.


Dr Roslynne Bell is an Honorary Research Fellow in Classics and Archaeology in SHAPS. Before coming to the University of Melbourne she taught Greek and Roman art and archaeology at the University of Manchester in the UK, and at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Dr Bell was also the curator of the James Logie Memorial Collection of Classical Antiquities at the latter for over a decade. Her book, Image and Identity: Augustus and the Cult of the Magna Mater, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

Feature image: Prima Porta Augustus (first century CE) (detail). Photographer: Till Niermann via Wikipedia Commons. Vatican Museum, 2290