|Image Credit: “File:Marble relief of a dancing maenad Roman Augustan Period 27 BCE-14 CE copy of Greek releif attributed to Kallimachos 425-400 BCE (1) (548317598).jpg” by Mary Harrsch from Springfield, Oregon, USA is licensed under CC BY 2.0.|
Augustan art refers to the art produced during the reign of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus (born Gaius Octavius; 23rd September 63 BC), also known as Octavian. He was the first Roman emperor of the Roman Empire (Julius Caesar was the dictator of the Roman Republic) and reigned from 27 BC until he died in 14 AD. Towards the end of this paper, I have included a brief bio of Augustus.
The term “Augustan” is used to describe the style and culture of this period, which was characterised by a return to traditional values and a renewal of artistic expression. Augustan art is notable for its realism and attention to detail, as well as its emphasis on the grandeur and power of the Roman state. Augustan art also saw the rise of portraiture as an important art form. Many of the surviving examples of Augustan art are in the form of statues, busts, and reliefs, which were used to commemorate the emperor and his achievements. Augustan art also includes monumental buildings, such as temples, public squares and famous aqueducts.
Augustan art was also heavily influenced by the art of Greece and the Hellenistic world, which the Romans admired for its beauty and skill. Many Augustan artists were Greek or of Greek descent, and they brought their knowledge of Greek art and techniques to Rome. This is evident in the use of the classical orders, such as the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, in Augustan architecture and the use of realistic portraiture and idealised forms in Augustan sculpture. Additionally, the art of the Augustan period was also seen as a tool for propaganda; it was used to promote the image and ideals of the state and the emperor, to reinforce the idea of the Pax Romana and the Golden Age Augustus promised to bring. Overall, Augustan art is considered a high point in Roman art and culture, and it had a profound influence on the art of later periods.
Augustan art is considered an important and valuable part of art history, and examples of it are highly prized by museums, collectors, and scholars. However, the demand for Augustan art can vary depending on the specific piece or type of art. Some of the most sought-after examples of Augustan art include statues and busts of the emperor Augustus and other important figures of the time, as well as large-scale architectural elements such as friezes and pediments. Relief sculptures are also in demand, particularly those that depict historical or mythological scenes. However, it is important to note that most of the original Augustan art pieces were made of marble or bronze – materials easily recyclable – and many of the original pieces were lost or destroyed over time. Today, most surviving Augustan art pieces are found in museums or private collections, and many of the pieces in circulation are copies or reproductions.
The art of the period of Augustus is frequently called Augustan Classicism. Augustan and Julio-Claudian art is the artistic production in the Roman Empire under the reign of Augustus and the Julio-Claudian dynasty, lasting from 44 BC to 69 AD. At that time, Roman art developed towards a serene “neoclassicism“, which reflected the political aims of Augustus and the Pax Romana to build a solid and idealised image of the empire.
Augustan art is characterised by refinement and elegance, adapted to the sobriety and measure that Augustus had imposed on himself and his court, including a revival of classical Greek and Roman ideals, a focus on reason and restraint, and a return to traditional forms and themes. During the time of Augustus, a radical urban transformation of Rome began in a monumental sense. Suetonius recalls that:
‘Rome was not up to the grandeur of the Empire and was exposed to floods and fires, but he embellished it to such an extent that he rightly boasted of leaving the city he had found made of bricks of marble. In addition to that, it also made her safe for the future, as far as she could provide for posterity.’ 
Augustan Classicism refers to the literary and artistic style prevalent during the reign of August. The style of Augustan literature, in particular, was marked by a focus on morality, political stability, and celebrating the achievements of Augustus and his regime. This period is considered one of the high points of Roman Literature.
Image Credit: The Prima Porta statue of Augustus
Attribution: Vatican Museums, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue-Augustus.jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Some examples of Augustan literature include the works of:
- Virgil, such as the “Aeneid,” which celebrated the founding of Rome and the glory of Augustus’ reign;
- Horace’s “Odes,” which praised traditional Roman virtues and the stability of Augustus’ rule; and
- The “Satires” and “Epistles” of Juvenal, which criticised the moral decay and social vices of Roman society.
- These poets are considered to be the greatest poets of the Golden Age of Latin literature.
In terms of visual art, examples of the period are:
- The Prima Porta statue of Augustus – This marble statue, standing over six feet tall, depicts Augustus in a heroic pose, wearing military attire and holding a spear. It is believed to have been created to commemorate Augustus’ military achievements and was likely displayed in a public space.
- The Ara Pacis – This altar, commissioned by Augustus to celebrate the peace that had been established in the Roman empire, features intricate carvings and reliefs that depict various aspects of Roman life, including religious rituals and imperial propaganda. The Ara Pacis was constructed between 13 BC and 9 BC. The general Italic approach is mixed with neo-Attic reliefs and a frieze in the style of Pergamon; all combined without precise, logical relationships between architectural parts and decorations. Only the small frieze on the central altar is considered a truly local artwork.
Image Credit: The front of the Ara Pacis Augustae
Attribution: Rabax63, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ara_Pacis_(SW).jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
- The Apollo Belvedere – This marble statue depicting the Greek god Apollo is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of ancient Greek sculpture. It was likely created in the 1st century BC and is thought to have been brought to Rome by Augustus as a symbol of his admiration for classical Greek culture.
Image Credit: Apollo Belvedere (Apollo of the Belvedere; Pythian Apollo)
Attribution: Leochares, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Belvedere_Apollo_Pio-Clementino_Inv1015_n5.jpg
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.
All the works mentioned above are considered masterpieces of Augustan Classicism and are a great representation of the art of this era.
Sculpture and Architecture
In the Augustan era, works of careful technical and formal perfection were produced. Artists were devoted to combining detailed realism with creativity richness. This era was defined by neo-Atticim and was ultimately a brake on the developing individuality of Roman art.
During the time of Augustus, Rome took on the appearance similar to that of the most important Hellenistic cities with the replacement of many brick constructions with marble. In this period, there was more experimentation with architecture, notably concerning triumphal arches, baths, amphitheatres and mausoleums in Rome. The Arch of Augustus, for example, was the first permanent three-bayed arch ever built in Rome. It was erected by Augustus around 20 BC. More buildings were dedicated to entertainment in Augustan times: the Roman Theatre of Orange was founded in 40 BC, the Theatre of Marcellus dates back to 11 BC, and the Pula Arena was built in the time between Claudius and Titus. The influence of Roman architecture on Greece can also be seen in this era, evidenced by the Roman Agora at Athens, constructed in 15 BC.
Image Credit: Villa of Livia
Attribution: see filename or category, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Villa_di_livia,_affreschi_di_giardino,_parete_corta_meridionale_02.jpg
The Augustan era saw the transition from the second to the third Pompeian Style.
Painted within the House of Livia on the Palatine Hill in Rome, there is a classic example of a second style. The decoration of the Casa della Farnesina, attributed to the painter Studius between 30 BC and 20 BC, was mentioned by Pliny the Elder.
At the end of the reign of Augustus, there were detailed garden frescoes painted in the large room of the Villa of Livia. The same painters probably also decorated the Auditorium of Maecenas (now largely lost without adequate photographic cataloguing after the discovery). The painting of such gardens derives from eastern influence, with lower quality examples found in some tombs of the Gabbari necropolis.
The most famous hall of the Villa of the Mysteries probably also dates back to the time of Augustus, where copies of Greek paintings and Roman insertions are mixed.
The reconstructions of Pompeii after the earthquake of 62 AD saw new decorations for the first time in the so-called Fourth Style (see below). Also done in this style are the decorations of the Domus Transitoria and the Domus Aurea, linked to the names of the painter Fabullus and Nero. The main purpose of these frescoes was to reduce the claustrophobic interiors of Roman rooms, which were windowless and dark. The paintings, full of colour and life, brightened the interior and made rooms appear more spacious.
Styles of Decoration
The Pompeian Styles are four periods distinguished in ancient Roman mural painting. Four main styles of Roman wall painting have been found: structural (or incrustation), architectural, ornamental, and intricate. Each style is unique, but every style following the first contains aspects of the previous styles. Any original paintings were created before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The wall painting styles have allowed art historians to delineate the various phases of interior decoration in the centuries leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which both destroyed the city and preserved the paintings, and between stylistic shifts in Roman art during late Republican and Augustan periods. In the succession of styles, there is a reiteration of stylistic themes. The paintings also tell a great deal about the prosperity of the area and specific tastes during the times.
The Fourth Style in Roman wall painting is characterised by a highly ornate and elaborate design, with complex architectural elements and a crowded composition. It is also known as the Ornate Style or the Intricate Style. This style emerged in the 1st century AD and was popular until the end of the 4th century AD. It features various motifs, including architectural elements such as colonnades, pediments, and friezes, as well as figurative elements such as human and animal figures and different decorative patterns. The style is known for its vibrant colours and gilded elements, creating a rich and opulent visual effect.
Toreutics and Glyptics and more
Toreutics is the art of working with metals, especially gold and silver, to create decorative and functional objects such as jewellery, vessels, and other decorative items. Glyptics is the art of carving or engraving hard materials such as stone, metal, or gems.
In the Augustan era, examples of toreutics include gold and silver tableware, vessels used in banquets and other ceremonial events, and the intricate gold jewellery worn by members of the elite class. Examples of glyptics from this era include the engraved gems and cameos that were used to decorate clothing, jewellery, and other objects. These works often depicted mythological scenes or portraits of important figures. The famous Gemma Augustea is a good example of glyptics from this era.
Works widespread in the provinces were funerary monuments decorated with reliefs, where the client’s social status, businesses and public services were highlighted (as in the Funerary Monument of Lusius Storax). The portraits in these works are almost always generic, without real individualised details. As a result, it is nugatory to date them based on the hairstyles and styles of the clothes depicted in the art.
There are two main original trends observed in provincial art: The conception of figures carved in blocks, with accentuation of mass at the edges (“cubistic” conception, which had also existed in Etruscan art and then disappeared in the Republican era); and figures with expressions of a gentler nature.
Augustus is known for being the founder of the Roman Principate, the first phase of the Roman Empire, and is considered one of the greatest leaders in human history, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. The reign of Augustus initiated an imperial cult and an era associated with imperial peace, the Pax Romana or Pax Augusta. The Roman world was largely free from large-scale conflict for more than two centuries despite continuous wars of imperial expansion on the empire’s frontiers and the year-long civil war known as the “Year of the Four Emperors“, the first civil war of the Roman Empire, during which four emperors ruled in succession: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian.
Originally named Gaius Octavius, he was born into an old and wealthy equites branch of the plebeian gens Octavia. His maternal great-uncle Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, and Octavius was named in Caesar’s will as his adopted son and heir; as a result, he inherited Caesar’s name, estate, and the loyalty of his legions. He, Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate to defeat the assassins of Caesar. Following their victory at the Battle of Philippi (42 BC), the Triumvirate divided the Roman Republic among themselves and ruled as de facto dictators. The Triumvirate was eventually torn apart by the competing ambitions of its members; Lepidus was exiled in 36 BC, and Octavian defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.
After the demise of the Second Triumvirate, Augustus restored the outward façade of the free republic, with governmental power vested in the Roman Senate, the executive magistrates and the legislative assemblies, yet he maintained autocratic authority by having the Senate grant him lifetime tenure as commander-in-chief, tribune and censor. A similar ambiguity is seen in his chosen names, rejecting monarchical titles whereby he called himself Princeps Civitatis (First Citizen) juxtaposed with his adoption of the title Augustus.
Augustus dramatically enlarged the empire – annexing Egypt,
Dalmatia, Pannonia, Noricum and Raetia, expanding possessions in Africa, and completing the conquest of Hispania, but he suffered a major setback in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in Germania. Beyond the frontiers, he secured the empire with a buffer region of client states and made peace with the Parthian Empire through diplomacy. He reformed the Roman system of taxation, developed networks of roads with an official courier system, established a standing army, established the Praetorian Guard as well as official police and fire-fighting services for Rome, and rebuilt much of the city during his reign. Augustus died in 14 AD at age 75, probably from natural causes. Persistent rumours, substantiated somewhat by deaths in the imperial family, have claimed that his wife Livia poisoned him. He was succeeded as emperor by his adopted son Tiberius, Livia’s son and the former husband of Augustus’ only biological daughter, Julia.
“I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble,”
said Emperor Augustus, according to the historian Suetonius.
- The Augustan Art of Poetry: Augustan Translation of the Classics, Hardcover and Illustrated, by Robin Sowerby (Author), published by OUP Oxford (26 January 2006), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Augustan-Art-Poetry-Translation-Classics/dp/0199286124/
- Classical Pasts: The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome: 1, Paperback, by James I. Porter (Editor), published by Princeton University Press (11 December 2005), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Classical-Pasts-Traditions-Greece-Rome/dp/0691089426/
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- Augustan Culture – an Interpretive Introduction, by Karl Galinsky, published by Princeton University Press (11 June 1996), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Augustan-Culture-Interpretive-Karl-Galinsky/dp/0691058903
- The Alternative Augustan Age, by Josiah Osgood, Kit Morrell, et al., to be published by OUP USA (13 April 2023), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Alternative-Augustan-Age-Josiah-Osgood/dp/0197673651/
- Virgil’s Augustan Epic, by Francis Cairns, published by Cambridge University Press (13 Jun 2014), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Virgils-Augustan-Epic-Francis-Cairns/dp/0521034965
- The Providence of Wit: Aspects of Form in Augustan Literature and the Arts, by Martin C. Battestin (author), published by University of Virginia Press (30 October 1983), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Providence-Wit-Aspects-Augustan-Literature/dp/0198120524/
- Domitian’s Rome and the Augustan Legacy, by Raymond Marks and Marcello Mogetta, published by the University of Michigan Press (30 September 2021), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Domitians-Augustan-Legacy-Raymond-Marks/dp/0472132679/
- The Cultural History of Augustan Rome: Texts, Monuments, and Topography, by Matthew P. Loar, Sarah C. Murray, et al., published by Cambridge University Press (30 May 2019), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cultural-History-Augustan-Rome-Topography/dp/1108480608/
- Columbarium Tombs and Collective Identity in Augustan Rome, by Dorian Borbonus, published by Cambridge University Press (16 May 2019), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Columbarium-Tombs-Collective-Identity-Augustan/dp/1108436021/
- Virgil and the Augustan Reception, by Richard F Thomas, published by Cambridge University Press (13 June 2014), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Virgil-Augustan-Reception-Thomas/dp/0521028957/
- Roman Art and Archaeology, at: https://fr.coursera.org/lecture/roman-art-archaeology/1-augustan-art-QSCCt
- Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century C.E. (Vatican Museums), at: https://youtu.be/0HhWj97jKSQ
- Altar of Augustan Peace, at: https://youtu.be/KIwK5XclvsA
- The Augustan Age, at: https://youtu.be/Z60pa85rDzA
- Roman Portraits: Augustus and Nero, at: https://youtu.be/v7nnO2foIG0
End Notes and Explanations
Explanation: Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, commonly referred to as Suetonius c. AD 69 – after AD 122),* was a Roman historian who wrote during the early Imperial era of the Roman Empire. His most important surviving work is a set of biographies of 12 successive Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian, properly titled De vita Caesarum. Other works by Suetonius concerned the daily life of Rome, politics, oratory, and the lives of famous writers, including poets, historians, and grammarians. A few of these books have partially survived, but many have been lost. * see: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Suetonius”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Cambridge University Press. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suetonius ↑
Source: Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius. “Vita divi Augusti”. De vita Caesarum libri VIII. p. 28. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustan_and_Julio-Claudian_art ↑
Explanation: The term toreutics, relatively rarely used in English, refers to artistic metalworking – hammering gold or silver, engraving, or using repoussé (a metalworking technique in which a malleable metal is shaped by hammering from the reverse side) and chasing to form minute detailed reliefs or small engraved patterns. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toreutics ↑
Source: “Augustus | Biography, Accomplishments, Full Name, & Facts”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustus ↑
Explanation: The equites (literally “horse-” or “cavalrymen”, though sometimes referred to as “knights” in English) constituted the second of the property-based classes of ancient Rome, ranking below the senatorial class. A member of the equestrian order was known as an eques. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equites ↑
Explanation: In ancient Rome, the plebeians (also called plebs) were the general body of free Roman citizens who were not patricians, as determined by the census, or in other words “commoners“. Both classes were hereditary. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plebeians ↑
Explanation: The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, described as the Varian Disaster (Clades Variana) by Roman historians, took place at modern Kalkriese in AD 9, when an alliance of Germanic peoples ambushed Roman legions and their auxiliaries, led by Publius Quinctilius Varus. The alliance was led by Arminius, a Germanic officer of Varus’s auxilia. Arminius had acquired Roman citizenship and had received a Roman military education, which enabled him to deceive the Roman commander methodically and anticipate the Roman army‘s tactical responses. Teutoburg Forest is commonly seen as one of the most important defeats in Roman history, bringing the triumphant period of expansion under Augustus to an abrupt end. The outcome of this battle dissuaded the Romans from their ambition of conquering Germania. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Teutoburg_Forest ↑