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The many guises of the emperor Augustus
The many guises of the emperor Augustus

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Hopefully you now have some insight into the ways in which Rome’s first emperor used imagery, as well as written propaganda, to secure his place at the head of the state.

Augustus was keen to characterise his rule as a return, after the decadence, violence and vanity of the civil wars, to the morally upright values and system of the Republic. At the same time, he was, as everyone could see, in control of the state. Augustus had to convince the Roman people that this power had been given to him by the senate and the people because only he possessed the extraordinary qualities needed to save the state from collapse once again. In other words, in order to legitimise his power, Augustus had to play an interesting double-act of both downplaying the extent of his power, and emphasising his outstanding qualities and achievements. He did this, among other things, by inhabiting a range of different guises which corresponded largely to his honorary titles. Each of these guises was signalled using specific clothing that ‘told’ the viewer how to read the image. In this way, just as for King Abdullah of Jordan, dress could be used as a tool to present an array of different roles and characteristics to the Roman people, and in so doing try to be all things to all people.

Why does all this matter? Well, for one thing, the portraits created by Augustus, as well as the values and roles they represented, became the blueprint for Roman emperors for the rest of Roman history. Centuries later, Roman emperors were still being portrayed in almost exactly the same ways, and aspiring to rule in the way that Augustus did. For another, the examples of Augustus and King Abdullah show that using clothing to carefully construct public images is something common to political leaders across space and time.