Roman portraiture, including the desire to convey verism to the audience through art, was at a rise at the time of the Roman Republic and the Early Empire. Sculptures such as A Roman Patrician With Busts of His Ancestors and the Augustus of Prima Porta aimed to communicate the power of tradition and identity to the viewers. It is to no surprise that the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire thrived with the help of a solid national identity.
The Roman Republic sprung from the defeat of Tarquinis Superbus of the Monarchy. During this new period of rule, the power was in the hands of a senate, a council of elders that oversaw the functions of the Republic. The leaders of the Republic were all patricians, or, by definition, a class of wealthy landowners. Roman patricians took pride in their lineage and family heritage and gave credit to their ancestors for successfully forming and maintaining the Republic. The large influence this family pride had on Roman sculpture is non-debatable. All patricians had imagines, or portrait masks of their ancestors, in their homes. These imagines were often paraded at patrician funeral as a celebration and remembrance of the dead. Such imagines were essential in separating the wealthy patricians from the plebeian class. The sculpture of A Roman Patrician With Busts of His Ancestors, dated back to the late 1st century AD, demonstrates just how prominent these imagines were in society. This life-size marble statue depicts a Roman patrician, dressed in a toga and holding two marble heads of his ancestors. The toga in itself was a “badge” of Roman citizenship. The imagines are most likely the portraits of this patrician’s father and grandfather. Verism also plays a distinct role in this sculpture, as replicating the exact facial characteristics of their ancestors was important to patricians. The more realistic the sculpture, the closer the patricians were to their ancestors.
Upon the fall of the Roman Republic, Augustus and Mark Antony’s fight for the throne resulted in a civil war. Augustus came out of this civil war with a defeat against Mark Antony and gained his place at the throne. This new historical period came to be known as the Early Empire. During this time, both individual and national identity, combined with authority, continued to play key roles in Roman portraiture. Their influence can be seen in the Augustus of Prima Porta, a marble sculpture of Augustus created in the 1st century AD after his restoration of order throughout Rome and the formation of the Roman Empire. In this statue, Augustus is depicted as general in armor as he stands gloriously, eyes on the horizon, arm raised. Clearly, his power can’t be questioned. He presents himself as the ideal person to lead the Romans through the early stages of this new empire. At the time, Augustus is a well known man with military expertise, but he is able to establish a “connection” to the people by being presented as a common man, specifically through a barefoot depiction of himself. Such a sculpture brings pride and hope to the Roman people, as their national identity is embodied by Augustus. However, Augustus personally sets himself apart from the common people with the representation of Cupid at his foot. This cupid traces Augustus to the goddess Venus and illustrates his divine lineage.
Through sculptures such as A Roman Patrician With Busts of His Ancestors and the Augustus of Prima Porta, ancient Roman artists communicated messages of power, personal pride, and national identity to the Roman people. In the end, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire have been remembered for their awe-inspiring art and superior leaders. With this, the Romans set an example for modern society: the use of art as a form of propaganda is extremely effective.