Augustus Caesar


Portrait of Augustus as general
Marble copy of bronze original
c. 20 BC
6' 8" tall

Augustus, adopted son and heir to Julius Caesar, was a master of propaganda. This statue is but one of many that were erected throughout the Empire during his reign. Augustus recognized that the vast majority of his subjects would never see him in life but could view him in the carefully controlled context of officially sanctioned, produced, and distributed statuary. This statue thus shows the official Augustus with an entire catalogue of the symbolism that confirms his divine authority and talents. This symbolism is clearly evident when we look at the statue from head to toe to see what each component says abut the emperor.

Two points are quickly evident from looking at the statue as a whole. First, the general pose depicts Augustus as an authority figure in the act of giving a rousing speech. Message: He is a great orator.

Second, he is wearing the uniform of a Roman general. Message: He is a great warrior.

Other messages emerge from looking more closely specific parts of the statue.


The face is a reasonably accurate likeness of Augustus as a young man. In the Greek tradition, he is rather stylized and made to appear very much like the accepted images of Apollo—after all Augustus was deified and therefore on the same level as his brother god. Along the same lines, such statues never show the emperor as an old or infirm individual—the emperor is a god and, as such, immortal and ageless.


A relief scene on his armor depicts the return of captured Roman standards by an enemy soldier. Even though Augustus did not actively participate in the negotiations for the return of the standard he of course took all the credit for what he considered a diplomatic coup. Message: he is a great diplomat.


He is carrying a staff, the age-old symbol of authority and power (holy Freud!). Message: he is powerful.


The robe wrapped around his waist would have been originally painted purple, the color reserved for emperors (most ancient statues were painted to some degree). Message: he is emperor.

Baby and Dolphin

The baby riding a dolphin (the dolphin is hard to recognize at this angle) can be interpreted a couple of ways. The Julians (Augustus's family) claimed some divine hanky panky in their lineage (the names Venus and Neptune come up most frequently) and the child could represent Venus's son while the dolphin, a creature of the sea, could be seen as a representation of Neptune, god of the seas. The implication here is that divine blood runs through the veins of Augustus. Message: he is a god.