April 2018

The Trophy on “Augustus of Prima Porta”

"Augustus of Prima Porta," side view, a copy of a bronze statue of c. 20 BCE. Marble, height 6' 8" (2.03 m). Musei Vatican

“Augustus of Prima Porta,” side view. Early 1st century CE, perhaps a copy of a bronze statue of c. 20 BCE. Marble, height 6′ 8″ (2.03 m). Musei Vatican

Yesterday I was looking for a detail image of “Augustus of Prima Porta” to show to a student, and I came across an image that showed the back of the cuirass (breastplate). “Hold on! What is that?” I thought. I never knew that the back of the sculpture was decorated. Underneath Augustus’ arm you can see that there is a small object that looks like a figure. It appears in considerably lower relief than the figures on the front.

Detail of trophy from the "Augustus of Prima Porta," early 1st century CE

Detail of trophy from the “Augustus of Prima Porta,” early 1st century CE. 

This figure is a Roman trophy (tropaeum). It is not a human figure, but it is an armored body with a helmet and breastplate that is put together on a tall pike to give off the semblance of a man. The armor is supposed to come from that of a defeated enemy. A similar trophy image, which includes the shields of defeated enemy soldiers, is located  within a frieze from at the Temple of Apollo in Circo (Capitoline Museums).

I can’t tell what is projecting from the trophy of the Augustus of Prima though. Can anyone tell what is coming out from its left (our right) side?

This website explains that the back of the cuirass is not only decorated with a trophy, but also wings. From my perspective the image looks like like wings than ribbon that is used to tie the cuirass together.

Augustus of Prima Porta rear view

Augustus of Prima Porta rear view, early 1st century BCE

Detail of side rear of cuirass

Detail of side rear of cuirass with so-called “wings”

I’m curious as to why this trophy was included, especially if it might not have been in a location where the imagery would have been seen regularly (a metal rod in the back of the statue suggests that it was meant to be placed on a wall). Part of me wonders if there was some awkwardness at portraying this trophy with the armor of defeated enemies, since Augustus’ victory over the Parthians was won more through diplomatic means than actual fighting on the battlefield per se. Does anyone else have more information or theories regarding the inclusion of this trophy?

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.