The adopted son of Julius Caesar, Augustus (63 B.C. – 14 A.D.) became the first emperor of Rome in 27 B.C., founding the Julio-Claudia dynasty. Many portraits of Augustus were erected throughout the empire in order to convey his political and social beliefs and to validate his claim to power. To distinguish his rule from that of the earlier Roman Republican period, when gravitas (seriousness) and age were emphasized in portraits, Augustus was always depicted as youthful, as in this marble head. A distinctive hairstyle identifies the emperor: comma-shaped locks form a pincer in the center of his forehead.
Private portrait sculpture was most closely associated with funerary contexts. Funerary altars and tomb structures were adorned with portrait reliefs of the deceased along with short inspiration noting their family or patrons, and portrait busts accompanied cinerary urns that were deposited in the niches of large, communal tombs known as columbaria. This funerary context for portrait sculpture was rooted in the longstanding tradition of the display of wax portrait masks, called imagines, in funeral processions of the upper classes to commemorate their distinguished ancestry. These masks, portraits of noted ancestors who had held public office or been awarded special honors, were proudly housed in the household lararium, or family shrine, along with busts made of bronze , marble , or terracotta. In displaying these portraits so prominently in the public sphere, aristocratic families were able to celebrate their history of public service while honoring their deceased relatives.
In the Republic, public sculpture included honorific portrait statues of political officials or military commanders erected by the order of their peers in the Senate. These statues were typically erected to celebrate a noted military achievement, usually in connection with an official triumph, or to commemorate some worthy political achievement, such as the drafting of a treaty. A dedicatory inscription, called a cursus honorum, detailed the subject’s honors and life achievements, as well as his lineage and notable ancestors. These inscriptions typically accompanied public portraits and were a uniquely Roman feature of commemoration.
The express mention of the subject’s family history reflects the great influence that family history had on a Roman’s political career. The Romans believed that ancestry was the best indicator of a man’s ability, and so if you were the descendant of great military commanders, then you, too, had the potential to be one as well. The intense political rivalry of the late Republican period gave special meaning to the display of one’s lineage and therefore necessitated its emphasis, manifested in such traditions as the cursus, wax imagines, and funerary processions, as an essential factor for success. The establishment of the participate system under Augustus, the imperial family and its circle soon came to monopolize official public statuary. Official imperial portrait types were principally displayed in Sebastian, or temples of the imperial cult, and were carefully designed to project specific ideas about the emperor, his family, and his authority. These sculptures were extremely useful as propaganda tools intended to support the legitimacy of the emperor’s powers. Two of the most influential, and most widely disseminated, media for imperial portraits were coins and sculpture, and official types laden with propagandistic connotation were dispersed throughout the empire to announce and identify the imperial authority. Scholars believe that official portrait types were created in the capital city of Rome itself and distributed to the to serve as prototypes for local workshops, which could adapt them to conform to local iconographic traditions and therefore have more meaningful local appeal. Coins by their very nature are easily and quickly dispersed, reaching countless citizens and provincial residents, and thus the emperor’s image could be seen and his power recognized by people all across the vast empire.
Conversely, in the instance of the “bad” emperors such as Nero and Domitian, whose reigns were characterized by destructive behavior and who were posthumously condemned by the Senate, imperial portraits were sometimes recycled or even destroyed. Typical effects of a damnatio memoriae, a modern term for the most severe denunciation, included the erasure of an individual’s name from public inscriptions, and even assault on their portraits as if brought against the subject himself. Imperial portraits of “bad” emperors were also removed from public view and warehoused, often later recycled into portraits of private individuals or emperors of the following decades. A recarved portrait is relatively easy to recognize; certain features such as a disproportionate hairline or unusually flattened ears are typical signs that a bust had been altered from an earlier likeness.
“Portrait head of Julius Caesar” “Head of Marcus”
The head on the front of this sestertius is the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died in A.D. 180 after a reign of nineteen years. His funeral pyre decorates the back.
After death, a Roman emperor could be deified by decree of the Senate, and this was the case with Marcus Aurelius. He was declared a god, and the event was commemorated on coins issued by his son and successor, Commodus. On this coin, Marcus’ portrait is surrounded by the Latin inscription DIVVS M ANTONINUS PIVS–meaning “the god, Marcus Antonius Pius” a version of his name that incorporates the name of his father, the emperor Antonius Pius.
On the back, Marcus’ elaborate, four-story funeral pyre is decorated with statues on the second and third levels and a statue of the emperor in a four-horse chariot on the top. The word CONSECRATIO, meaning “deified,” is written around the pyre, and the letters SC are the abbreviation for “senate’s consul to,” which stands for “by decree of the Senate.”
“Through his Brutus as through his Horatii, [Jacques-Louis] David talks to the people more directly and more clearly than all the inflammatory writers whom the regime has confiscated and burned,” wrote a contemporary about Jacques-Louis David’s paintings.” David made this study in preparation for the well-known painting completed in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. Although it created a republican political sensation at the Salon, he had almost certainly not intended that reaction. He had chosen the subject from Roman history to satisfy a commission from King Louis.
After Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic, drove out the kings, he followed Roman code and condemned his own sons to death because they had supported the monarchy. Lictors, or Roman officers, bring in his sons’ bodies for burial, while Brutus sits impassively in the shadow of the goddess Roma. In contrast, his brightly lit wife and daughters succumb to grief at the sight of the corpses. David aimed for absolute historical correctness in figures, furniture, and costume; this style and specifically this picture decisively influenced the Revolution’s fashions, furniture, and hairstyles.
In conclusion, although coins continued to be minted in the name of Caesar after his death, influenced in their imagery by the policies and propaganda of the late dictator, a fascinating study in themselves, here, with the death of Caesar, this little biographic sketch ends. In looking back at his coinage, we see a consistency in themes and images: his dignitas reflected in his offices as augur, pontifex maximus, consul, dictator and imperator and in his descent from Venus and the very founder of Rome, Aeneas; his virtues of courage, piety and clemency reflected in his wreath, his veil and Clementia; his power in the images of Victory, scepters, globes, trophies and bound and weeping Gauls. The Republic had died even before Caesar’s death and could not be resurrected. The coinage of the liberators and of Caesar’s would-be successors and his heir, Octavian, were markedly different from those of the Republic and although a few emperors did issue “restoration” issues mirroring types from the Republic, Rome and her coinage were never to truly return to the types, variety and, perhaps, the creativity of that which preceded Caesar’s.