Portrait of the Roman Emperor Augustus

Italy (?)
after 27 BC

Height 41 cm

Property of Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V.



Augustus was born in 60 BC as Gaius Octavius. His career bore the imprint of the politics of Caesar, inventor of a new form of government: the dictatorship. For with great political skill, Caesar had succeeded in breaking the power of the old republican structures and focusing the affairs of state on his person.

In Rome, a large, underdeveloped city that suffered from a severely dilapidated infrastructure, Augustus developed a new and dignified style of governing marked by clemency (clementia) and a conscious reference to Greek culture. Augustus, or the “exalted one”, brought Eastern splendour to the formerly republican capital. Suetonius, the emperor’s biographer, writes of seventy new marble structures he commissioned. During Augustus’s reign, Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed the new doctrine of the Christians in the Roman provinces. The parallels between the political propaganda in the capital and the words of Jesus Christ are no accident. The concepts of brotherly love and clemency were employed by Augustus as part of his political and cultural propaganda.

This Frankfurt portrait possesses an especially beautiful surface. The damaged tip of the nose does nothing to diminish the splendid overall impression. The sensuous treatment of the features indicates the sculpture’s dependence on late Greek workshops. The forms of the face are ageless and idealized. The recognizability of the figure is ensured by individualized features, including the sensuous but restrained mouth and the rendering of the forelocks. Referred to as “claw” and “fork” by archaeologists, these idiosyncratic hair motifs are reserved for the portrait of the emperor and rule out any possibility of confusion.