Content Frame
Skip Breadcrumb Navigation
Home  arrow Chapter 3  arrow Key Concepts  arrow Augustus of Prima Porta

Augustus of Prima Porta

Augustus of Prima Porta:
Problems of Dating and Restoration

Of all the portraits of eminent Romans, the statue of Augustus from Prima Porta (Figure 1) is perhaps the most striking. This statue, currently located at the Vatican, shows Rome’s first emperor decked out in richly-decorated armor, with his right arm boldly raised, in what has been interpreted as an oratorical gesture. Augustus has been understood to be speaking about the historic event depicted on the center of his breastplate–the handing over in 20 B.C.E. of Roman military standards that had been captured by the Parthians. This pacification of the mighty Parthians (click here), whose vast Near Eastern territory lay beyond the eastern borders of the Roman Empire, was achieved through diplomacy rather than by warfare. It was an accomplishment which Augustus proudly reported in section 29 of the work he authored, the Acts of the Divine Augustus (Res Gestae Divi Augusti; Lewis Stiles, translator):

I compelled the Parthians to give back the spoils and the standards of three Roman armies to me, and as suppliants to beg the friendship of the Roman People. Those standards moreover in the innermost shrine which is in the temple of Mars the Avenger I deposited (click here for the rest of this text).

The depiction on the statue’s breastplate of the recovery of the Roman standards from the Parthians establishes that the earliest possible year when the portrait could have been executed was 20 B.C.E. Some scholars have concluded that the statue was created shortly after this event. However, other archaeologists consider the portrait to be posthumous, i.e. to have been created after Augustus’ death in 14 C.E. Besides the problem of the statue’s dating, there are unresolved controversies relating to the restoration of the attributes that were once held in the statue’s hand or hands. This uncertainty pertaining to the restoration of the statue’s lost attributes is closely linked to the debate regarding the statue’s original position within the villa of Augustus’ wife Livia, where the statue was discovered in 1863.

Click on the different buttons below, for discussions of these different issues:





Your text, Art Past/Art Present, endorses the late dating for the statue. It states:

The sculpture probably dates after Augustus’ death, for it represents the emperor without boots, suggesting that he has been deified.

In his article that is cited in full in the bibliography, John Pollini observes that "the appearance of Augustus with bare feet has often been cited as evidence for the Prima Porta statue’s being a posthumous work representing him as deified" (see your bibliography, note 71, p. 280). He goes on to point out that this theory seems to be invalidated by the survival of coins minted during Augustus’ lifetime that show the leader in military attire, and with bare feet. The coins in question are silver denarii, which were probably minted in Italy between 31 and 29 B.C.E., when Augustus still bore the name Octavian. They show on the reverses (the back sides) a standing figure of Octavian, who wears the same costume as the Prima Porta Augustus–a short tunic, a breastplate and a cloak (see Pollini’s article, your bibliography, fig. 15.9, p. 266). Also, like the statue of Augustus, Octavian on the denarii has unshod feet.

In her important study of 1992 entitled Roman Sculpture (see your bibliography), Diana E.E. Kleiner acknowledges the existence of the denarii, but nonetheless accepts a posthumous date for the statue. Her rationale for the late dating is her belief, shared by many other scholars, that the statue is a marble copy of a bronze prototype, which may have been located in the Sanctuary of Athena at Pergamon, in Asia Minor. A base for a lost colossal bronze statue of Augustus was discovered in that sanctuary (see the article in the bibliography by Harald Ingholt, and click here). Kleiner believes that the presumed bronze prototype was executed shortly after 20 B.C.E., and that it lacked both the relief figures on the breastplate and the Cupid and the dolphin at Augustus’ right foot. She suggests that these features were added to the marble "replica" at Prima Porta, which she feels was executed decades later in about 15 C.E. This late dating would place the creation of the marble statue shortly after the death of Augustus–an event of 14 C.E., and at the beginning of the reign of his successor Tiberius.

There are good reasons to doubt the thesis that the Prima Porta statue was based on a bronze prototype. For a discussion of this issue, see:


However, even if the marble statue was not based on an earlier bronze statue and was instead an independent creation, it may nonetheless have been executed after Augustus’ death. The provenance of the statue in the Villa of Livia, Augustus’ wife (click here), seems to support such a dating. After Augustus’ death, the emperor was deified, and Livia became priestess of his cult.

That other residences where Augustus resided during his lifetime were consecrated after his death as spots sacred to the emperor is known from ancient texts. For example, Suetonius tells us in section 5 of his Divine Augustus how Augustus’ birthplace in Rome became a chapel (translated by Alexander Thomson and R. Worthington; click here):

Augustus was born in the consulship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius [63 BCE], upon the ninth of the calends of October [the 23rd September], a little before sunrise, in the quarter of the Palatine Hill, and the street called The Ox-Heads,where now stands a chapel dedicated to him, and built a little after his death.

We also know from Suetonius’ Tiberius, section 40 (click here), that the house in Nola where Augustus died was consecrated to the emperor. The town of Bovillae, located 17 kilometers north of Rome, was where Augustus’ Julian ancestors lived. In the Annals 2.41,Tacitus tells us that in 16 C.E. there "was consecrated … a chapel to the Julian family, and statues at Bovillae to the Divine Augustus" (translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb; click here). These ancient testimonia provide the basis for suggesting, as Jane Clark Reeder, has: "It is probable that the villa of Prima Porta like other dwelling places of Augustus had been consecrated, or at least that a part of it had been declared to be a sacrarium" (p. 304 in her article in the bibliography).

Possible support for a posthumous dating of the Prima Porta statue can be found in the central figures on the statue’s breastplate (Figure 2 and Figure 3). It is generally accepted that the right central figure who holds up the eagle-topped Roman legionary standard is a Parthian, possibly the Parthian king Phraates IV (click here). The left central figure, who prepares to receive the returned Roman standard from the Parthian, is more problematic. Like the statue of Augustus, this figure wears a breastplate, along with a helmet and military boots. He stands next to a dog or wolf. Kleiner reviews the possible identifications that have been proposed for this figure: "Suggestions include Augustus-Aeneas, Tiberius, Mars, Romulus, and the exercitus Romanus–the personification of the Roman army"(see your bibliography, p. 67). She prefers the identification of Tiberius.

Kleiner’s identification for the Roman soldier on the breastplate would be historically accurate, for we know from Suetonius, Tiberius 9, that it was Tiberius who actually "recovered the standards which the Parthians had taken from Marcus Crassus" (translated by J.C. Rolfe; click here). If this identification is considered to be correct, then the following scenario for the commission of the posthumously-dated statue can be reconstructed. The statue was made for a shrine to the deified emperor in one of Augustus’ consecrated residences, perhaps the most important one of all, since it was the habitation of his surviving wife and the priestess of his cult. Tiberius requested that he is included in the decoration of the breastplate, to commemorate his key role in a major accomplishment of Augustus’ reign, the pacification of Parthia by peaceful means. The visualization of Tiberius’ close involvement in this major policy of the now-deified Augustus would be intended to demonstrate the continuity between Augustus’ and Tiberius’ reigns.>

The foregoing argument demonstrates that considerable evidence can be marshaled in support of a posthumous dating for the Prima Porta statue. On the other hand, a strong case can also be made for dating the statue to Augustus’ reign. The event that is depicted on the breastplate can be securely dated to 20 B.C.E., which falls early in Augustus’ reign. Furthermore, as already elucidated, numismatic evidence demonstrates that Augustus could be shown barefoot during his lifetime. The coins in question show a barefoot Octavian, as Augustus was called before the beginning of his rule in 27 B.C.E., in military dress. These denarii were probably minted between 31 and 29 B.C.E., that is a decade before the earliest possible date for the Prima Porta statue.

The year of 31 B.C.E. was an important one for Octavian’s career, for this was when he triumphed over Marc Antony and Egyptian Cleopatra at the naval battle of Actium. The year of 29 B.C.E. was also significant for Octavian. According to Dio Cassius 52.41.3, this was when he assumed the title of imperator, or emperor. The denarii type with the barefoot Octavian show the young victor with his torso facing the viewer, and his head turned to the viewer’s left. He reaches out with his right hand in the same direction as his gaze, that is to the viewer’s left, and holds a spear in his lowered left hand. The Latin legend in the field is: CAESAR DIVI. F (the F standing for FILIUS), meaning "Caesar son of the god" (the god being Julius Caesar). A related denarius with the same legend and therefore the same dating of 31-29 B.C.E. (click here) may be pertinent to the Prima Porta statueÕs date. Like the statue, the figure of Octavian on the denarius raises his right arm in the apparent oratorical gesture of silencing his audience. However, unlike the statue, this numismatic depiction of Octavian shows the young conqueror with military boots.

A further group of denarius types shows depictions of Octavian with the title he used between 29 and 27 B.C.E.–IMPERATOR CAESAR. Significantly, on one of these types, a nude statue of Octavian, holding spear and sword, stands atop a column that is decorated with ships’ prows. Denarii with this design demonstrate that statues of Octavian could be created during his lifetime not only without shoes, but also heroically nude (except for a cloak). Surely if this was allowable for coins which may have been minted in Rome and would have had a wide circulation, then Augustus could also have been shown barefoot on a statue that was created later during his reign, and for one of his private residences. The pacification of Parthia would have been an appropriate occasion for the commissioning of such a statue.


When a hollow-cast bronze statue is copied in the far heavier medium of marble, supports need to be supplied which were not required for the bronze itself. This phenomenon can be observed, for example, in full-figure Roman marble copies of Polykleitos’ bronze Doryphoros (meaning Spear Bearer; click here In the three marble copies of the Doryphoros that are located in Naples, Florence and Rome, the principal support consists of a tree trunk; this support is placed next to, and is physically attached to the figure’s right leg. Heinz Kähler and many other scholars have concluded that the Augustus of Prima Porta is based on the Doryphoros. The basic pose of the Doryphoros and Augustus, in which the weight is thrown onto the figure’s advanced right leg, is the same. Also, as Kähler has pointed out, even the tree trunk of the Naples copy of the Doryphoros was copied in the statue of Augustus. In the case of the figure of Augustus, though, the trunk was cleverly concealed by the Cupid who rides on a dolphin (Figure 4; and click here).

According to Kleiner and other archaeologists, the suggested bronze statue of Augustus, which presumably served as the model for the Prima Porta statue, lacked the Cupid and dolphin, along with the tree trunk, that are present in the marble version. This theory of a bronze model for the Prima Porta statue would be more convincing, if the statue’s support consisted of just a tree trunk alone, as in the case of the marble copies of the bronze Doryphoros (click here)

The Cupid and the dolphin accomplish more than just hiding the support for Augustus’ right leg. Kähler concluded that they contribute to the composition of the statue as a whole. He observed: "The big expanses of armour, the cloak winding round the body and across the left arm … emphasize the width of the figure". Given this breadth, a weighty element such as the Cupid on the dolphin is required for the statue’s base. That something of this sort is needed, is readily apparent, when the marble Augustus is compared with a modern bronze copy in Augustus’ Forum in Rome (click here). Without the Cupid and dolphin, the bronze replica looks top-heavy.

The Cupid and dolphin also relate to the rest of the imagery of the marble statue, particularly to all the deities who surround the central scene on the breastplate. Like these deities, the Cupid demonstrates that Augustus’ actions meet with the approval of the gods. The Cupid, and the dolphin he rides on, also support Augustus’ claim that he was descended from Venus. This goddess was reputed to be the mother of Aeneas, Augustus’ noble Trojan ancestor.

In short, the Cupid and dolphin are compositionally necessary for the statue, and they also enhance the impact of the statue by literally demonstrating that Augustus has the support of Venus’ son Cupid. They appear, then, to have been an integral part of the initial design of the statue, and not an addition when the statue was translated from one medium to another.


The raised right hand of the statue of Augustus is incompletely preserved. Only one of the fingers, the curled ring finger, survives. The other three fingers and the thumb are modern restorations. Your text follows majority opinion, when it accepts the modern restoration. According to this restoration, the right index finger was pointed, and the empty right arm was held up in a gesture of adlocutio, or public address (for a bronze statue of an orator with a similar pose, click here). This restoration of Augustus in the role of an orator is not, however, universally accepted. A substantial number of scholars proposes an alternate restoration of the statue’s right hand, according to which Augustus’ fingers were all curled about a lost attribute, which either extended to the statue’s base and supported the right arm, or which was raised up in the right hand. A further point of disagreement is what should be restored in Augustus’ lowered left hand. This hand has a cutting inside of it which shows that some shaft-like attribute was once held in its loose grip (Figure 5; and click here). No trace of this lost attribute survives. Scholarly opinion is deeply divided in regard to what should be restored in this hand, and whether the emperor’s raised hand ever gripped any object. Unless additional parts of the statue are discovered, it is doubtful that consensus will ever be achieved.

The various theories on Augustus’ lost attributes can be linked to the different possibilities of where within Livia’s villa the statue might have been erected. Two of the most current suggestions regarding the statue’s original placement are (a) that it was placed on the villa’s only possible statue base, at the back of the atrium; and (b) that it was positioned in one of the underground chambers where it seems to have been discovered in 1863, according to one account.

If the statue was placed on the surviving base at the back of the atrium, then it was located in the northeastern corner of the villa, which lies next to its largest garden space (click here for the villa’s plan). This area, located east of the villa’s structures and measuring c. 75 by 75 meters, is called the garden terrace by the current excavators (for reports on the excavations in this terrace, click here, here, and here.

In his 1959 monograph entitled Die Augustusstatue von Primaporta, Heinz Kähler proposed that this terrace was where the famed laurel grove was located. Also, without the benefit of the knowledge that the recent excavations have provided, he believed that the statue of Augustus was placed in this terrace, on its north side. The story of the inception of the laurel grove at Prima Porta was recounted by several ancient authors (click here), among them Suetonius, Galba 1 (translated by J.C. Rolfe):

As Livia was returning to her estate near Veii (i.e. at Prima Porta), immediately after her marriage with Augustus, an eagle which flew by dropped into her lap a white hen, holding in its beak a spring of laurel, just as the eagle had carried it off. Livia resolved to rear the fowl and plant the sprig, whereupon such a great brood of chickens was hatched that to this day the villa is called Ad Gallinas (The Hen Roost), and such a grove of laurel sprang up, that the Caesars gathered their laurels from it when they were going to celebrate triumphs. Moreover it was the habit of those who triumphed to plant other branches at once in that same place (for the original Latin text, click here).

If the statue of Augustus was set up in the vicinity of the garden terrace or actually in the terrace (as Kähler proposed), and if this was where the famed laurel grove was located, one might imagine that the statue would have held a laurel branch. In fact, in Die Augustusstatue von Primaporta, Kähler proposed that Augustus once lifted a short laurel branch in his right hand. In 1986, Erika Simon proposed an alternate restoration, with a laurel branch in Augustus’ lowered left hand (see her drawing, Augustus: Kunst und Leben in Rom und die Zeitenwende, p. 56).

Jane Clark Reeder (see your bibliography) calls attention to the continuation of the passage quoted above, from Suetonius, Galba 1 (translated by J.C. Rolfe):

Now in Nero’s last year the whole grove (of laurels at Prima Porta) died from the root up, as well as all the hens. Furthermore, when shortly afterwards the temple of the Caesars (Caesarum aede) was struck by lightning, the heads fell from all the statues at the same time, and his sceptre, too, was dashed from the hand of Augustus (for the original Latin text, click here).

Reeder proposes that after Augustus’ death, part or all of the villa at Prima Porta may have been designated an aedes Caesarum, or sacrarium. Aedes Caesarum are the Latin words, meaning a shrine or a temple of the Caesars, that Suetonius uses to specify where the statue of Augustus was, which was damaged by lightning. Reeder suggests further that the statue of Augustus which Suetonius mentions may have been precisely the same as the masterpiece under consideration.

If Reeder’s association of Suetonius’ passage with the Prima Porta Augustus should be correct, then it would provide assistance in restoring the statue’s lost attribute(s). As Reeder has observed, the passage would indicate that the statue once held a scepter. As previously indicated, the figure of Augustus in its current condition holds a scepter–a modern restoration–in its lowered left hand (Figure 4; and click here). The reconstruction drawing (Figure 6) shows that restoring a scepter in Augustus’ other raised hand is another viable option. According to the restoration, the scepter reached all the way to the statue’s base.

Restoring Augustus’ missing fingers as wrapped around a long scepter has several advantages. First of all, an attribute in this position would provide seemingly-necessary support for the emperor’s heavy marble right arm, which is boldly extended away from Augustus’ body. It is interesting that the only other ancient marble statue with a comparably-bold pose–a copy of Lysippos’ bronze Apoxyomenos (Youth Scraping Himself), required a support for the figure’s extended right arm. The support took the form of a long strut, which once reached from the statue’s right wrist to his right thigh (click here).

There are also compositional advantages to a restoration of a long scepter in Augustus’ right hand. The long diagonal of the scepter repeats the diagonal of Augustus’ bent lower left leg. It also continues the sweeping direction of the raised right arm. In addition, it intersects with and balances the diagonal created by the laurel branch and the cloak, which is wrapped around the emperor’s waist. Furthermore, the inverted triangle of space that is enclosed by the scepter, Augustus’ raised right arm, and the right side of Augustus’ body balances the adjacent, partially-solid triangle comprised of Augustus’ spread legs and his torso (excluding the arms). If, alternatively, the statue’s right hand is restored in an oratorical gesture, without the support of a scepter, the statue loses the majesty that these geometric relationships transmit to the work.

The restoration of a scepter also adds new meaning to the statue of Rome’s first emperor. When he is provided with a tall scepter, Augustus assumes a role analagous to that of the Parthian on the breastplate, who elevates Rome’s legionary standard. By raising Rome’s standard, the dreaded Parthian is proclaiming Rome’s superiority, and helping to initiate a new era of peace and prosperity. By holding up the peaceful symbol of a scepter, Augustus affirms her universal rule–one which was based on the principle of crowning peace with law, as Virgil so eloquently prophesied for the Empire that was to follow Augustus’ rule (Aeneid, 6.851-3, translated by Theodore C. Williams):

But thou, 0 Roman, learn with sovereign sway

To rule the nations. Thy great art shall be

To keep the world in lasting peace, to spare humbled foe, and crush to earth the proud (click here).

The proposed reconstruction (Figure 6) follows Erika Simon’s restoration drawing, by placing a laurel branch in Augustus’ lowered left hand. Simon’s drawing differs from this one, by restoring a spear rather than a scepter as the support for Augustus’ raised right arm. A spear would provide the same support for the extended right arm as a scepter, and it would also ensure a balanced composition for the statue. Furthermore, it would be consistent with the military dress that the emperor wears. But a long spear would perhaps place too much emphasis on Augustus’ military might, rather than on his ability to govern by peaceful means.

The second hypothesis regarding the original placement of the statue would locate it close to where, according to one report, it was found–in one of the underground chambers in the southwest corner of the villa (click here for the plan of the villa). This suite of rooms, one of which is the famous Garden Room (illustrated in your text), lies far from the garden terrace. If the statue of Augustus were so far removed from the laurel grove, then the restoration of a laurel branch in one or the other of Augustus’ hands would not be likely. Instead, a more general symbol of the emperor’s authority would be appropriate. Furthermore, the conversational mode of an oratorical Augustus might be considered to be fitting for the intimate spaces of the underground chambers. Thus, for an underground setting, a scepter or spear is suggested as an appropriate attribute for Augustus’ lowered left arm, and his right arm would have been fittingly raised in a gesture of address.

Numismatic (i.e. coin) evidence can be brought forward in support of the thesis that the Prima Porta Augustus’ right arm was raised in an oratorical gesture. Roman silver denarii, dated to 31-29 B.C.E., depict Augustus in a similar pose. These coin depictions may be relevant to our discussion, since they may be miniature copies of a statuary prototype–likely in bronze, that was similar to the Prima Porta Augustus, and which preceded it in date. The denarii may also be useful, because they can be used as evidence for rejecting the modern restoration of a scepter in Augustus’ lowered left hand (fig. 4 and click here), and restoring instead a spear.

However, suggesting that Augustus’ heavy marble right arm was extended away from the body in an oratorical posture is not without problems, the most formidable being the lack of support that such a reconstruction would involve. Restoring a scepter or spear under this raised arm would solve this problem. Having a long support in this position would also improve the statue’s composition, and a scepter would add a new dimension to its meaning. Thus, in the author’s opinion, the statue’s most convincing reconstruction is presented in fig. 6. And its best position would be on the base at the back the atrium. There, the statue would impress every visitor who entered the villa with its vision of imperial authority.


The statue of Augustus was unearthed in 1863, in the villa of the emperor’s wife Livia. This villa is at Prima Porta, an ancient site on the Tiber River, located 15 kilometers north of Rome. Only one 19th-century plan of Prima Porta shows the exact position within the villa where the statue was discovered. This plan, reproduced in Jane Clark Reeder’s article (see the bibliography), was drawn in 1891, by an Italian named C. Nispi Landi. If this plan is to be trusted, the statue was found at the bottom of the staircase that leads to the famous subterranean Garden Room (see your text), and to a suite of two additional underground chambers (click here).

A lithograph, published just two years after the statue was excavated in 1863 (click here), appears to show the statue being removed from an excavated pit close to the "an arched opening in the ground which represented the entrance to the underground complex" (Reeder, p. 292). Reeder ascribes the lithograph’s positioning of the statue in the pit rather than in the adjacent staircase (as Nispi Landi) to "artistic license" (p. 296). In spite of these small differences, these two pieces of evidence–Nispi Landi’s plan and the lithograph–seem to agree that the statue was unearthed in the vicinity of the subterranean chambers.

Jane Clark Reeder suggests, as one possible original position, that the statue may have been placed in one of these underground chambers. One problem with this theory is that there is no statue base in any of the three subterranean chambers. Another difficulty lies in the poor visibility that the statue, with its magnificent decoration, would have if it were tucked away in one of the underground chambers. Nonetheless, Reeder’s theory is not entirely untenable, since it places the statue close to the staircase, where Nispi Landi claims it was found.

According to an alternate theory, proposed by Allan Klynne and Petter Liljenstolpe (see the bibliography), the statue would have originally been set up a considerable distance from the subterranean chambers. Klynne and Liljenstolpe would position the statue on the one possible base that has up to now been discovered in the villa (click here). This base is located at the back of the villa’s atrium. As in Pompeian houses, the atrium at Prima Porta was a large room with an open skylight in its center (for an illustrated discussion of the Roman atrium, click here). As in Pompeian houses, the atrium at Prima Porta was a large room with an open skylight in its center. Thus, if the statue of Augustus was placed on the base at the back of the atrium, it would have made an immediate impression on every ancient visitor, once he or she had entered the villa (click here).

Klynne and Liljenstolpe’s suggestion that the statue of Augustus once stood in the atrium has many points in its favor, the most important one being the statue’s high visibility in this position. One aspect of their theory, though, is unclear. This is the rationale for calling their placement of Augustus in the atrium "more profane than Reeder’s suggestion of a sacrarium [sacred spot]." Judging from the portraits that were placed in it, the atrium seems to have been the focus for cult activities honoring both the heroized dead ancestors, and the Genius, or guardian spirit, of the living master of the house.

The Roman authors Polybios (second-century B.C.E.), and Pliny the Elder (first-century-C.E.) both refer to the atrium as a seemingly-sacred part of the Roman house where portraits of deceased family members were perpetually placed, and revered. Polybios reports that (6.53, translated by J.J. Pollitt):

… having buried him [a prominent Roman] and performed the customary rites, they place a portrait of the deceased in the most prominent part of the house, enclosing it in a small wooden aedicular shrine. The portrait is a mask which is wrought with the utmost attention being paid to preserving a likeness in regard to both its shape and its contour.

Writing three centuries later, Pliny tells us the following (Natural History 35.6-7; translated by J.J. Pollitt):

But conditions were different in the atria of our ancestors where it was portraits which were looked at, and not statues by foreign artists… Wax impressions of the face were set out on separate chests, so that they might serve as the portraits which were carried in family funeral processions… The family archive rooms were filled with scrolls and other records commemorating deeds done [by members of the family] during their magistracies. Outside the doors [i.e. at the back of the atrium] around the lintels there were also portraits of these great spirits along with spoils of the enemy fixed in position near them; not even one who bought the house was permitted to remove these spoils; and so the house celebrated perpetual triumph even though the masters changed.

No actual wax masks or heads of the types Polybios and Pliny describe have survived from antiquity. However, a marble statue of Augustan date seems to represent a noble Roman who is carrying wax busts of his father and grandfather in a funeral procession, such as Pliny describes. These busts would presumably have been understood as having been temporarily removed from their shrines within the atrium.

Another interesting and perhaps pertinent type of evidence relating to portraits in atria has been discovered in a number of houses at Pompeii. This evidence consists of marble herms, or pillars, which supported portrait heads of the masters of the house. These herms stood at the back of the atrium next to the entrance to the tablinum, or archive room–i.e., in the same position at the back of the atrium as that proposed for the statue of Augustus, and in the same location as Pliny’s "portraits of these great spirits." Usually the Pompeian herms had arm-like stumps, from which garlands were suspended on special festive occasions (click here).

Good examples of this type of portrait are the pair of marble herms with bronze heads of Lucius Caecilius Jucundus, which were erected by a freedman named Felix, and dedicated to the Genius of Jucundus. Other herm portraits from Pompeii were paid for by relatives of the master of the house, and sometimes by slaves. The Roman enthusiasm for the herm statue type is apparent in one of Cicero’s letters to his friend Atticus in Athens; he writes: "As to your Hermae of Pentelic marble with bronze heads, about which you wrote to me--I have fallen in love with them on the spot" (click here).

Klynne and Liljenstolpe date the base in the atrium of Livia’s villa to the reign of her son Tiberius, the emperor who was Augustus’ successor and who ruled from 14 to 37 C.E. A dating within Tiberius’ reign would allow the base to be later than the fragment of a Third-Style wall painting, which was preserved between the base and the wall when the base was constructed. This fragment, belonging to Phase IC of the Third Style (click here), has itself been dated to the first quarter of the first century C.E. Klynne and Liljenstolpe observe that a Tiberian dating for the base "would fit admirably with proposals that the statue is posthumous and that the figures on the cuirass allude to the legitimacy of the successor, with Tiberius himself as the hero of [the center of] the breastplate."

In spite of the apparent concurrence of all these factors, caution should be exercised in dating the statue by the base where it may once have stood. Since the statue was apparently discovered such a long way from the atrium, it may have occupied different positions during the long history of the villa, which was inhabited from the Augustan age through the time of Constantine in the fourth century C.E. (click here). Furthermore, as Jane Clark Reeder observed to me in conversation regarding this subsite, the Third-Style painting fragment does not necessarily imply a Tiberian dating for the base. If the Third Style, Phase IC has correctly been assigned to the first quarter-century C.E., then the base could equally-well have been constructed late in Augustus’ reign, which lasted until 14 C.E.

In summary, placing the statue of Augustus in the atrium of villa’s Livia, if this took place after his death, would follow a long Roman tradition going back at least to Polybios’ time in the second century B.C.E. This tradition honored and evidently revered deceased family members through the placement of their portraits in this part of the house. If the statue were placed in the atrium during Augustus’ lifetime, it may have been intended, like to herms of Pompeii, to depict the emperor’s Genius, or guardian spirit, who would ensure the prosperity of the household.


Harald Ingholt, "The Prima Porta Statue of Augustus, Part II: The Location of the Original,"Archaeology, vol. 22, 1969, pp. 304-318.

Heinz Kähler, The Art of Rome and her Empire, New York, 1965.

Diana E.E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture, New Haven & London, 1992.

Allan Klynne and Petter Liljenstolpe, "Where to Put Augustus? A Note on the Placement of the Prima Porta Statue," American Journal of Philology, vol. 121, 2000, pp. 121-128.

John Pollini, "The Augustus from Prima Porta and the Transformation of the Polykleitan Heroic Ideal: The Rhetoric of Art," in Polykleitos, the Doryphoros, and Tradition, ed. by Warren G. Moon, Madison, Wisconsin, 1995, pp. 262-282.

Jane Clark Reeder, "The Statue of Augustus from Prima Porta and the Underground Complex," in Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History, vol. 8, ed. by Carl Deroux, Brussels, 1997, pp. 287-308.

Pearson Copyright © 1995 - 2010 Pearson Education . All rights reserved. Pearson Prentice Hall is an imprint of Pearson .
Legal Notice | Privacy Policy | Permissions

Return to the Top of this Page