Parthians, Celts and Iberians or Germans: Scenes on the breastplate of the “Augustus of Prima Porta” (early first century CE)

Photo by sailko Photo by Steven Zucker Photo by Steven ZuckerInformation and description: The “Augustus of Prima Porta” is a two-meter tall white marble statue (perhaps a copy of an earlier bronze from the Parthian Arch in the Forum) with a breastplate that depicts mythological scenes alongside the defeat of Kleopatra at Actium (31 BCE) and other “barbarian” peoples (with further details under comments). Found in nineteenth century excavations of the Villa of Livia Drusilla (about 12 kms north of Rome on the Via Flaminia), the statue is now in the Braccio Nuovo of the Chiaramonti Museum (part of the Vatican museums). It likely dates just after 14 CE, since the emperor’s feet are bare, indicating that he had died and undergone the Roman senate’s ritual of divinization (apotheosis).

Comments (by Daniel Mitchell): The breastplate on this statue is a work of Augustan propaganda. The iconography represents three distinct “barbarian” peoples. First, there is the Parthian figure in the central scene of the breastplate (see first close-up photo). The Parthian is shown returning to the Romans (as a result of diplomacy) an eagle standard or flag (aquila), which had previously been lost by M. Licinius Crassus at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE (Plutarch, Crassus 25-31; Suetonius, Tiberius 9). On the return of the Roman standard by Parthians, see also coins at this link. Following somewhat stereotypical Roman depictions of Parthian or Persian nobility, the figure is bearded with thick wavy hair and is wearing both a belted tunic and pants or trousers.

Second, a figure on the left side of the breastplate (second close-up photo) appears to be a Celtic goddess, who would represent the Celts (in Greek) or Gauls (in Latin). Celts had ostensibly been defeated twice, first during Caesar’s conquest of the Celtic area in the mid-first century BCE (as outlined in his own Gallic Wars) and second between 30-29 BCE when various peoples reacted to Roman attempts to control the territory (Dio Cassius, Roman History 51.20). The goddess wears a ribbon around her head, a cloak clasped at the upper left shoulder and pants or trousers. She also carries a Celtic war-trumpet (carnyx) in her right hand and a sword in her left hand. She stares (as if in defeat or mourning) at a wild boar, a popular symbol of Celtic bravery, which in this case may also be a Celtic military standard. This posture of mourning in defeat is similar to several coins celebrating Roman “capture” (capta) of particular peoples (link).

Third, there is a divine figure representing either Spanish (Iberian) or Germanic peoples on the right-hand side of the breastplate. If she represents the goddess Hispania, then her presence may refer to Augustus’ campaigns against the Cantabrians and Asturians of northern Spain (cf. Dio, Roman History 53.25). If the goddess represents Germania, then she may refer to campaigns of conquest against Germanic peoples on the east bank of the Rhine between 12 BCE and 9 CE (e.g. Dio Cassius, Roman History 55.6; 56.18-24). It is clear from her downturned-look and by the extension of her sheathed sword (with handle facing out) that she is in a posture of submission to Rome.

Collectively this imagery serves as reminder that the so-called “peace of Rome” (pax Romana) and, by extension, the “golden age” of Augustus could only be achieved in relation to, or at the expense of, other peoples. There are, however, signs of ethnic hierarchies in the ranking of barbarian peoples in this case. The Parthian figure is treated as something of an equal since he is standing on equal footing with the Roman figure directly opposite him, and he does not bow his head in defeat. The Roman elites viewed the Parthians as the last somewhat civilized frontier to oppose Rome, and since the two powers had traditionally exchanged blows on equal footing, it should be of little surprise that the Parthian figure is depicted in a more respectable manner. On the other hand, the figures representing Celts, Iberians, or Germans are depicted in a rather unsavoury light, with heads bowed and their arms turned over in defeat. The Roman perception of northern European “barbarians” aligns with those of their Greek peers and is predicated on notions of geographically determined characteristics. That is, northern peoples are made hardy by the harshness of their climate, which makes them brave and determined opponents, but also results in diminished mental abilities. In other words, the Roman elites perceived the “barbarians” of the north as incapable of conducting civilized governance, unlike the Parthians. Collectively, the submission of all three “barbarian” peoples to Rome and the authority of Augustus is at the crux of the statue’s propagandistic message, which is that Rome has achieved universal hegemony under the tutelage and guidance of the Julio-Claudian family.

Works consulted: C. Brian Rose, “The Parthians in Augustan Rome,” American Journal of Archaeology (2005) 109: 21-75; P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Alan Shapiro, trans. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988).

Source of images: Photos by Till Niermann (overall statue), Sailko (Parthian figure; both licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0), Steven Zucker (Celtic goddess and Germanic or Spanish goddess; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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