2016

THE FOOTPRINT OF AUGUSTUS IN THE MNAT

Museu Nacional Arqueològic de Tarragona (MNAT)

Augustus, designated IMPERATOR CAESAR DIVI FILIVS AVGVSTVS, resided in Tarraco between 27 and 25 BC. He had retired there to recover from an illness. From there he oversaw operations against the Cantabrians and the Asturians and issued a series of dictates that set the new format for the government of the Roman world. For two years, Tarraco was, in practice, the capital of the Empire.

The footprint of Augustus
It was during this time that Tarraco was confirmed as capital of the largest province in the Empire, the "Provincia Hispania Citerior", under Augustus’ political and administrative reforms. Tarraco was called on to be Rome’s great capital in the western Mediterranean and, although the majority of its grand public building complexes date from the subsequent Julio-Claudian dynasty, there can be no doubt that they were planned during the time of Augustus. In this planning we can see the footprint of Augustus. It was he who was responsible for Tarraco being considered “the most opulent town on this part of the coast”, to quote Pomponius Mela in the time of the emperor Claudius.

FRAGMENT OF A TOE OF THE POSSIBLE STATUE FROM THE TEMPLE OF AUGUSTUS

My footprint was very long … and very large, as is well demonstrated by this fragment of a toe from the foot of the colossal statue of me that would have presided over the temple dedicated to my worship. In fact, many centuries later, in your time, I am considered to have been one of the twenty most influential people in the history of humanity. I invite you to accompany me on this itinerary to discover some of the aspects of my life and my time in Tarraco. I’d like you to have an idea of what I was really like.

TOGAED STATUE. PROBABLY AUGUSTUS

The theatre was the first of the public performance venues built in Tarraco and the only one from my time. And what better place to exhibit the images of power than on the "frons scaenae" of the theatre? This was the backdrop to the stage and it served as a canvas on which to exhibit the images of those who held power. There, in a central position, stood this large statue of me wearing the purple "toga picta".

TOGAED STATUE. POSSIBLY CLAUDIUS

Also on the "frons scaenae" of the theatre, although a little later, stood this other large (but not as large as mine) togaed statue. It represented Claudius, the emperor between 41 and 54 AD. It seems that the sculptors took advantage of an earlier statue of Caligula, his predecessor who had fallen into disgrace. So you can see that we recycled things too and in the representation of power only those who actually held it remained.

SESTERCE FROM THE TARRACO MINT. TEMPLE OF AUGUSTUS / STATUE OF AUGUSTUS

The statue I told you about at the beginning of the itinerary would have been in the grandiose octastyle temple dedicated to my worship depicted on these sestertii (brass coins) minted in Tarraco during the reign of Tiberius. In fact, in the year 15 AD, the people of Tarraco were the first to ask my successor, Tiberius, for permission to build a temple to worship me, which would be "in omnes provincias exemplum" (an example for all the provinces).

SESTERCE FROM THE TARRACO MINT. RADIATE HEAD OF AUGUSTUS / ALTAR WITH PALM TREE

The people of Tarraco also dedicated an altar to me. Years after my stay in Tarraco, when I was already back in Rome, I received a delegation from that town. Its members announced to me –as evidence of my divinity– that a palm tree had grown on this altar. “You obviously don’t use it very much”, I replied in my normal austere manner. However, they must have considered this event to be something special, as they perpetuated it on this coin. Look, as I said, the altar with the palm tree on top!

FRAGMENT OF AN ARCHITECTURAL FRIEZE WITH AN INSCRIPTION

This large local stone ashlar with the remains of the inscription IMP(erator) CAES(ar) crowned one of the two entrances to the theatre "orchestra", probably the western one. This inscription, like the next one you will see and others found in the building, refer to my imperial titles.

FRAGMENT OF AN ARCHITRAVE WITH AN INSCRIPTION

The inscription on this piece refers to the "tribunicia potestas", the civil power I held together with the military ("imperium") and religious ("pontifex maximus") powers. All power was brought together in my personage, although I attempted to present myself as the "primus inter pares", the first among equals.

ALTAR DEDICATED TO THE NUMEN OF AUGUSTUS

The citizens were very aware of this absolute power. Look, this altar was in the centre of the theatre "orchestra" and was used for the rituals carried before the performance. In addition to its decoration of the "lituus" (the ritual staff of the augurs) and the patera and jar of the "flamines" and priests, on the main façade you can see an inscription dedicated to the "Numen Augustusi", the divine power of the emperor. This was a clear form of relating the virtues of the gods with the absolute power of the emperor.

MEDALLION FROM THE WORSHIP AREA DEPICTING JUPITER AMMON

Who better than Jupiter −the father of all the gods− to preside over this medallion ("clipeus"), which was part of the architectural decoration of the area dedicated to the imperial cult in Tarraco, imitating that of the lateral porticos of my forum in Rome. It reminds me of the verses in the “Aeneid” (1, 223-304) when Virgil has father Jupiter say, when replying to a distraught Venus who is worried about her son, Aeneas, “Put away your fear, Cytherea, your family's destiny remains unchanged; I have granted him power with no limits, either in space or time: I have assigned him an empire without end”. An empire without end… that was my legacy!

DECORATED ITALIC “TERRA SIGILLATA” VESSEL

Not only did the ways of politics change. The establishment of the Empire also brought about changes in more mundane aspects of life, such as fashions in tableware. In the Republican period the must-have pottery for the table was black varnish ware from Campania, but in my time the most popular was the red varnish "terra sigillata" ware, so-called because it often bore the stamp of the artisan who made it, with his name and sometimes those of the slaves who worked for him. In this case, we can see the stamp of M. Perennius, a very important potter from Arretium in the north of Italy (I think you call it Arezzo now), whose vessels were decorated with a very refined art and enjoyed great prestige.

PEDESTAL OF A STATUE DEDICATED TO THE DEIFIED AUGUSTUS

As you can see in this room, one of the strategies we used –in addition to military conquest– to establish and consolidate the Empire was propaganda based on the power of images. Mine, those of my family and my successors were the model that everyone had to be well aware of. The pedestal you are looking at belonged to a statue dedicated to me as a god. It says “to the divine Augustus” and it was erected in the Flavian period and dedicated to me and Vespasian (the emperor at the time) by one Marcus Acilius Nymphodotus, an influential citizen.

POSSIBLE POSTHUMOUS PORTRAIT OF A VEILED AUGUSTUS

I received gestures of admiration and recognition throughout my life and, at least publicly, I always tried to brush them off. However, although I say it myself, I was an extraordinary propagandist! The power of my images was taken advantage of by my descendants. They always invoked my name when it came to highlighting the power and security of the Empire. Here I am depicted as a "pontifex maximus" with my head covered by the priestly veil. If you follow me, I would like to show you my family and tell you about my biggest problem: my succession.

PORTRAIT OF LIVIA

Centuries later, vicious tongues (making up fables about me and the history of my dynasty) would say “Augustus governed the world, but Livia governed Augustus” (Robert Graves) and history would describe Livia as a seditious, scheming woman. The truth is, however, that I was captivated by her beauty and we were married for 52 years, until I died. For me she was the paradigm of the Roman matron, the bearer of all the virtues Rome needed. We had no children and it’s true that she had a considerable influence on the matter of my successor, because in the end the chosen one was Tiberius, her son from her first marriage.

FEMALE STATUES. A POSSIBLE LIVIA

Livia began empress worship. She had no real power, but of course, I don’t need to tell you, she was a big influence, a recognised public power. I awarded her many privileges not enjoyed by other women, and in my will I adopted her into the "gens" Julia, meaning she was able to call herself Augusta. However, it would not be until the reign of her grandson, Claudius, that she would be deified. Her image was also displayed all over the Empire. Look, as I said, these two statues were in the gallery of portraits of my family that presided over the forum of the "colonia Tarraco", making it quite clear to all citizens who held the power.

POSTHUMOUS PORTRAIT OF TIBERIUS WITH THE CIVIC CROWN

None of my three marriages produced sons. I had one daughter, Julia, with my second wife, Escribonia. Not having a direct heir was a big problem for me. My beloved Marcel and Agrippa –who I married to my daughter– died after a short time. Then I began to consider my grandsons, Lucius and Gaius –Julia’s sons– but unfortunately they also died before I could make my wish a reality. Finally, against my better judgement, I had to choose Tiberius –Livia’s son with her first husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero. I know that Tiberius, although he became one of Rome’s great generals, strengthened the Empire and spread the imperial cult, was never happy. Pliny called him "tristissimus hominum" (the saddest of men). He became paranoid and isolated himself more and more, retiring to the island of Capri and losing all interest in the exercise of power.

PORTRAIT OF A JULIO-CLAUDIAN PRINCE. POSSIBLY GERMANICUS

There were many aspirants in the race to succeed me in power. One I loved very much was Germanicus, son of Drusus and grandson of my wife Livia. When his father died I had Tiberius adopt him, thus placing him in the line of imperial succession. He married my granddaughter, Agrippina with whom he had nine children, among them the future emperor Caligula. His death in strange circumstances caused suspicion to fall on Tiberius, who was jealous of Germanicus’ popularity among his troops and the citizens in general. His portrait, together with this other one –I can’t remember now if it was Caligula’s brother, Drusus Germanicus, or Claudius’ son, Britannicus– was also present in the theatre. The other portrait, that of Nero Caesar, another son of Germanicus and brother of Caligula, was part of the gallery of my family portraits that presided over the Colonial Forum.

PORTRAIT OF A JULIO-CLAUDIAN PRINCE. DRUSUS GERMANICUS, BROTHER OF CALIGULA, OR BRITANNICUS, SON OF CLAUDIUS

PORTRAIT OF NERO CAESAR, SON OF GERMANICUS AND BROTHER OF CALIGULA

PORTRAIT OF CLAUDIUS

Claudius –son of Drusus and brother of Germanicus– ended up being proclaimed emperor at the age of 52, “by chance” in the words of Suetonius. Following the assassination of Caligula, a group of Praetorian Guards found him hiding in a corner of the imperial palace. They brought him out and proclaimed him emperor. Perhaps for that reason, to legitimise himself as an emperor, he took the name of Caesar, and also that of Augustus –as the previous two emperors had done– and deified Livia, my wife, often using the title of son of Drusus, whom I liked much more than his brother Tiberius. If you look at this portrait –which was in the "Schola del Collegium Fabrum", the headquarters of the Tarraco builders’ guild– he is shown in a very idealised manner, probably trying to look like me! It could not be further from the truth, however, as we all know he was not blessed with good looks.

TOGAED STATUES WITH “BULLA AUREA”

All those that could form part of my line of succession were present in the public spaces. These togaed statues are children from my family who formed part of the gallery of imperial statues in the Colonial Forum (the first) and on the "frons scaenae" of the theatre (the other two). They are children, because if you look carefully you can see they are wearing the "toga praetexta" and around their necks they have the "bulla aurea", the amulet worn by all children until they reached adulthood, when it was removed in a religious ceremony and they dressed in the “toga virilis”. If I remember rightly these statues are of the princes Britannicus –son of Claudius– or Nero. The latter would be the last of the emperors in my dynasty; his reign is always associated with tyranny and extravagance and ended with his suicide.

COPY OF THE VENUS OF CNYDOS

The end of a dynasty… mine, that of the Julio-Claudians, that on which the Aeneid of my much admired Virgil conferred divine origin, that of Venus, mother of Aeneas. As I review my life and my heritage, I ask myself again, and I ask you too, as I did those closest to me, “Have I played my role well?” They said I had and so I replied, "acta est fabula, plaudite!", “The comedy is over. Applaud!” (Suetonius, “Aug.”, 97-99).

Museu Nacional Arqueològic de Tarragona
Credits: Story

MNAT ITINERARIES 6

"THE FOOTPRINT OF AUGUSTUS IN THE MNAT"

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