Note: I originally wrote this essay for a class at NYU on visual persuasion in the fall of 2021.
In the 1960 United States presidential election, then-Senator John F. Kennedy faced a unique challenge in his campaign.
Much of the American electorate felt content with the calm, economically prosperous Eisenhower era, which Kennedy’s opponent Richard Nixon was associated with as Eisenhower’s vice president.
To get elected Kennedy needed to break from this image. In contrast to Nixon, he provided an image of youth, adventure, and imagination.
In his campaign, he used the slogan, the “New Frontier” as an appeal to American voters to “recapture our pioneer spirit.”
This, coupled with his youthful, energetic appearance (amplified by the first nationally televised presidential debates) fueled what remains even today the youthful myth of John F. Kennedy.
On these ideas Kennedy defeated Nixon, and still remains a popular president, partially due to this myth he created and continued to fuel during his presidency (like his promise to land a man on the moon).
Around 2000 years earlier, Octavian (later Augustus) faced a similar uphill task of creating the myth of himself, and portraying it to the Roman public.
While the time period, audience, language, and mediums have all changed, the ultimate task of the politician hasn’t: they must create popular stories around themselves to win over the public.
Of all the historical data we have of Augustus, one statue alone demonstrates the message he sought to sew.
Today we call it “Augustus at Prima Porta” because it was found in his wife Livia’s villa at Prima Porta.
Within the statue, Augustus (and presumably his public relations/marketing team) embedded many strategies and messages to the Roman public within it.
Upon first glance of the prima porta, there’s a lot going on. From the small child riding a sea creature, to the highly decorated chest plate, to the outward gaze and bare feet, each detail lends itself to a particular interpretation from the Roman audience.
One of the myths Augustus suggests in the statue involves linking himself with Greek heroism.
In this context, as John Pollini argues, Greek culture appealed to the Roman public. “With their conquest of the Greek world in the second and first centuries BC, Romans increasingly fell under the spell of Greek culture and art” (Pollini, 262).
Appeals to Greek heroism would link Augustus to these heroic figures.
The bare feet, according to Sheldon Nodelman, “are a clear reference to the ideal nudity of heroic statues” (Nodleman, 16).
Looking at the statue with my own eyes, the bare feet seem out of place. In no situation would a Roman warrior have metal chest armor, yet no shoes. (Imagine a U.S soldier in full military gear yet no shoes.)
A scene like that would be reserved for, literally, a Greek god.
Another reference is the cuirass itself. Traditionally, Greek statues appeared nude, showcasing the male stomach. Augustus in theory could have done this, making the association even more obvious.
However, Augustus’s rule began out of a tumultuous civil war. At the same time as he needed to create myth, he also needed to show stability and competency. The cuirass accomplishes both.
As Rosemary Barrow argues, “Such ornate imagery still accommodates the physical fact that a cuirass, shaped in the form of a muscular chest, recalls the body beneath, and, in doing so, it negotiates Greek notions of heroic nudity and Roman ideals of military prowess” (Barrow, 93-94).
John Pollini argues that Augustus at Prima Porta has a lot in common with a Greek Doryphoros model, and that this model in particular better suits the message of Augustus. “This comparison to the Doryphoros and other similar sculptures was prompted by a need to show that man who was sanctus et gravis (i.e., ‘solemnly upright’ and ‘impressively dignified’) needed not a flaccid and nerveless style… but a form of eloquence that was indicative of virility and purity” (Pollini, 268).
Put more simply by Pollini, “The Doryphoric type is a metaphor of masculine beauty and moral purity and strength” (Pollini, 268). Because of their similarities, this can then be applied to Augustus by viewers familiar with the archetype.
Adjacent to the Greek heroism comes an appeal that Augustus is actually god-like, a deity. In the Prima Porta statue, most modern-day viewers likely will be puzzled by the small, human-like figure holding onto Augustus’s right leg. Part of Augustus’s ascent to power was his lineage to Julius Caesar. While links to a previous emperor led to his position, he took this a step further, by linking Caesar, and by extension himself, to the gods.
Nodelman writes, “In 42 B.C. Octavian obtained the admission of the deified Julius Caesar into state cult and the worship of the new god in all Italian Cities” (Nodelman, 35).
By deifying Caesar, he deifies himself by extension. The appearance of Cupid adds another link to the same divine family tree. “Cupid reminds the viewer of Augustus’s divine descent from Venus through Aeneas and hence of his inborn claim to rule over Aneas’ posterity, the Roman people” (Nodelman, 16).
Although Augustus lived to be 75, all of his statues and sculptures show him with a similar youthful look. Nodelman writes, “his portraits return youthful features through the rest of his life” (Nodelman,16).
In my small sample size exploring the Augustus statues and portraits at New York’s MET museum, every single one showed a young Augustus appearing much like Caligula. The skin appeared smooth, the head of hair full and parted.
Like JFK, youth and enthusiasm was part of Augustus’s political appeal.
Nodelman writes, “The new image of Augustus offers the freshness and boundless possibilities of youth, the freedom to make the world anew” (Nodelman, 16).
These three strategies incorporate one half of the political messaging puzzle for Augustus. They all invoke a hopeful mythology and New Frontier-esque ideas of romanticism and heroism.
But that political strategy alone could have been insufficient for Augustus.
Unlike Kennedy coming out of a calm era, Rome at the outset of Augustus’s reign had just endured a civil war. The populace likely sought a return to stability in some regard. In fact, Marc Antony, then Octavian’s rival, tried similar methods to deify himself to less success.
As Paul Zanker writes, “The uncertainties of the present and the capriciousness of politics in Rome… provided fertile soil for seers and soothsayers… The only language available in which to express such ideas was that of Greek myth… Marc Antony’s attempt to identify himself with Dionysus, which ultimately had disastrous consequences, is the best example” (Zanker, 44).
Augustus needed to strike a balance, appealing to competency and humility as well as heroism. The Prima Porta does both, supporting Augustus’s tightrope walk through Roman politics.
The Prima Porta’s suggestions of military leadership support this image of competency. In particular, the cuirass does this. “A sculpture of Augustus in military costume which celebrates the emperor’s role in securing divinely sanctioned peace and prosperity” (Barrow, 106).
John Pollini claims Augustus’s physical gesture also implies militaristic attributes. Notable at first glance is the left hand, seeming to vaguely point outward, possibly towards a crowd.
“The left hand held of the Prima Porta statue is lowered and undoubtedly once held some military attribute, in keeping with Augustus’ representation here as imperator (supreme commander)” (Pollini, 264-5).
Nodelman argues for other hints at competency in the Prima Porta, like “the dominating gaze” which signals “old Roman virtues” (Nodelman, 17).
Perhaps a stronger note of this is the general posture of Augustus. The hand reaching out implies an audience. The left heel lifted assumes he is in mid stride. Combining these observations together, Augustus likely appears here speaking to an audience.
Pollini suggests this is an adjustment from the Greek model to specifically portray him as a speaker. “It seems that the sculptor of the Prima Porta statue took special care in his transformation of the Doyphoros to adjust his figure according to the strictures of pronuntiatio established for the art of public speaking” (Pollini, 272).
The Prima Porta suggests that Augustus can not only be a god and a war hero, he can also command and calm a room, implying he is a master of the subtle, political art of public speaking.
The stronger sign of Augustus’s attempts to portray humility to the public comes from his name change itself. While the Prima Porta uses visual-rhetoric, Augustus also knew the power of subtle word shifts, which I’ve written about in modern and ancient contexts, such as how word choice fueled climate skepticism.
Formerly Octavian, Augustus means “first citizen… an act meaning he submitted himself as a part of the Roman public, rather than grabbing power” (Nodleman, 19).
Within this move, Augustus embeds a few messages to the public. Firstly, it affirms that he leads for the people and not for himself, that he is nothing more than a citizen of Rome and a servant to its people (while also being a god, of course).
The reluctant leader consistently has an appeal from a marketing perspective. Another famous example of the myth created by a reluctant leader is from George Washington.
At the surrender of Great Britain, Washington (so the myth goes) chose not to name himself king. All other implications of this aside, this was a brilliant political move which his contemporaries applauded as evidence that he was even more fit to lead. Today, this story remains a part of Washington’s myth as the reluctant leader.
Augustus, by virtue of his name, achieves a similar effect.
Back to the statue, his public speaking stance shows, “an acute awareness of spectators.” If you imagine a viewer of the statue, they would feel like his audience, like part of the public he speaks to. Like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, with eyes that seem to follow the viewer, Augustus gains a closeness to his audience by virtue of his awareness to his audience.
Of course, whether any of this is true about Augustus is completely besides the point of the Prima Porta statue and the messages it portrayed.
The nature of marketing, of public relations, for better and worse, rests on perception and persuasion.
Whether Augustus appeared as youthful as he does in the prima porta, or whether he knew the finer arts for public speech, or whether he performed as an effective, competent military leader all don’t matter for the sake of interpreting the prima porta statue.
What it shows was the skill he and his team had for packing so many messages into one piece of art.
If we can imagine works of art like this planted throughout Rome, we can then imagine the impact these could have on the public, how it would inevitably shape their perception of Augustus.
Other Roman traditions, like the verist tradition, show an understanding for its audience and the persuasive effect of art.
Sinking into a cynical rabbit hole about this is easy. However, all sources from the past and present have this layer of perception to them.
In our lives, like Augustus, the clothes we wear, the way we stand and move, who we associate with, all form a certain image. A tattoo represents a story we like to tell, a t-shirt of our favorite band tells other strangers something about us, this step in our stride suggests we played a certain sport.
Just as Augustus’s bare feet or youthful face seek to portray something about him. Projecting an image inevitably is part of life. We all have our metaphorical cuirass. Whether we disdain for the possible incongruities between image and reality, we can admire and learn from Augustus, a master at the craft of packing myths and stories, and persuasion into a visual form.
Barrow, R. 2018. “The Political Body: Prima Porta Augustus,” in Gender, Identity and the Body in Greek and Roman Sculpture, pp. 89-109.
Chernow, R. 2010. Washington: A Life, Penguin Press.
Dallek, R. 2004. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, Little, Brown and Company.
Nodelman, S. 1975. “How to Read a Roman Portrait,” reprinted in Roman Art in Context (1993), pp. 10-26.
Pollini, J. 1995. “The Augustus from Prima Porta,” in Polykleitos, the Doryphoros, and Tradition, pp. 262-282.
Zanker, P. 1988. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.