A History of Rome in Paintings: 15 Peace in the age of Augustus

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ (study) (c 1855), oil on canvas, 37.1 x 55.2 cm, J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of J Paul Getty Museum.

With the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March 44 BCE, Rome was plunged into turmoil and another civil war. Most of the conspirators fled the city in fear of attacks on their own lives, leaving few to salvage any stability. It was Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) who allied with Caesar’s adopted son Octavian (Octavius, Gaius Octavianus), together with Marcus Lepidus who formed a ruling triumvirate.

Mark Antony and the great orator Cicero were sworn enemies, and the two had several close calls after Caesar’s murder. As Cicero’s power rose again in Rome, he raised a faction against Mark Antony and had him driven from the city. Cicero was then led on and cheated by Octavian, for the latter to become consul. Once Octavian was successful, he allied himself with Mark Antony, and Cicero’s name was put on a list of two hundred to be put to death.

When Cicero learned of this, he was staying in the country, and fled. He got to Astura, where he couldn’t decide whether to go any further, or to return to Octavian in Rome. He went on to Caieta, where he had a summer retreat. He was being carried in a litter through the woods towards the sea when his assassins caught up with him. Cicero ordered the litter to be put down, stretched out his neck, and he was beheaded.

Cicero’s head and hands were taken back to Rome, where Mark Antony, who was conducting an election there, ordered them to be put on public display. But the Romans didn’t see there the face of Cicero – rather they saw into the dark soul of Mark Antony.

Pavel Svedomsky (1849–1904), Fulvia With the Head of Cicero (date not known), oil on canvas, 67.5 x 138.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Plutarch’s account of the life of Cicero makes no mention of a popular alternative version of his death, which claims that his head was presented on a platter to Fulvia, who would have had every reason to want it, as the widow of Clodius and wife of Mark Antony. Pavel Svedomsky’s undated Fulvia With the Head of Cicero from the late nineteenth century shows Fulvia sticking hairpins in Cicero’s tongue in return for the orator’s many critical speeches about her husband.

Francisco Maura y Montaner (1857–1931), Fulvia and Mark Antony, or the Vengeance of Fulvia (1888), oil on canvas, 340 x 550 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain (loan to Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes de Santa Cruz de Tenerife). Wikimedia Commons.

Francisco Maura’s Fulvia and Mark Antony, or the Vengeance of Fulvia from 1888 shows Fulvia smiling with glee at Cicero’s head, in a manner reminiscent of another femme fatale of the end of the nineteenth century, Salome, with the head of John the Baptist. Fulvia is here poised with her hairpin, and encouraged by those around her, including Mark Antony.

The triumvirate met forces organised by the conspirators in the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, where both Brutus and Cassius ended their own lives. The triumvirate then fell apart, with Octavian challenging Mark Antony first in the naval Battle of Actium (31 BCE), then in Egypt, where Mark Antony had allied his forces with those of Caesar’s former lover, Queen Cleopatra.

Louis Gauffier (1762–1801), Cleopatra and Octavian (1787), oil on canvas, 83.8 x 112.5 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

Cleopatra’s legendary beauty has been expressed in paint by several artists, among them Louis Gauffier, whose Cleopatra and Octavian of 1787 shows the young Octavian and Queen Cleopatra conversing under the watchful eye of Julius Caesar’s bust. Following his defeat, Mark Antony fell on his sword, and Cleopatra is reputed to have killed herself with the bite of an asp.

This left Octavian in sole control of Rome, and in 27 BCE, under the name of Augustus, he became the first emperor of the new Roman Empire. The emperor Augustus seems to have preferred to see himself in statues and on coins, and more recent visual art has tended to respect that. A few fine paintings have, though, shown episodes from his reign, from 27 BCE to 14 CE.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ (c 1852-54), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, location not known. Image by Wmpearl, via Wikimedia Commons.

It is Jean-Léon Gérôme who reminds us of the great events which were taking place at the eastern end of the Mediterranean during the reign of Augustus, in The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ (c 1852-54). The emperor sits on his throne, overseeing a huge gathering of people from all over the Roman Empire. Grouped in the foreground in a quotation from a traditional nativity is the Holy Family, whose infant son was to transform the empire in the centuries to come.

Sadly for Ovid, and even Virgil, Gérôme’s throng doesn’t appear to include distinguished poets from the Augustan age.

Jean-Joseph Taillasson (1745—1809), Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia (1787), oil on canvas, 147.2 × 166.9 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1974), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

Several painters have, though, shown Augustus’ favourite Virgil at the emperor’s court. Jean-Joseph Taillasson’s Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia from 1787 shows the poet, at the left holding a copy of his Aeneid, reading a passage to the emperor Augustus and his sister Octavia. Augustus has been moved to tears by the passage praising Octavia’s dead son Marcellus, and his sister has swooned in her emotional response.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), Maecenas Presenting the Liberal Arts to Emperor Augustus (1743), oil on panel, 70 x 89 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Although a fan of Virgil and a minor author in his own right, Augustus wasn’t a strong patron of the arts. Until 8 BCE, his friend Gaius Maecenas acted as cultural advisor to Augustus, and was a major patron of Virgil. Tiepolo’s Maecenas Presenting the Liberal Arts to Emperor Augustus from 1743 shows Maecenas at the left introducing an anachronistic woman painter and other artists to the emperor.

As with so many dictators, Augustus could be capricious in his favours. For reasons which remain obscure even today, Ovid fell from grace when he offended Augustus, and in 8 CE was banished to Tomis, on the western coast of the Black Sea, at the north-eastern edge of the Roman Empire.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Ancient Italy – Ovid Banished from Rome (1838), oil on canvas, 94.6 x 125 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

It is perhaps JMW Turner who has best epitomised this in his Ancient Italy – Ovid Banished from Rome, which he exhibited in 1838. In a dusk scene more characteristic of Claude Lorrain’s contre-jour riverscapes, Turner gives a thoroughly romantic view of Ovid’s departure by boat from the bank of the Tiber.

Artist not known, The Great Cameo of France (c 50 CE), five-layered sardonyx cameo, 31 x 26.5 cm, Cabinet des médailles, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Image by Jastrow and Janmad, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ovid was thus in no position to commit Augustus’ eventual death and apotheosis in 14 CE to verse, but this is shown in an exquisite sardonyx cameo known as The Great Cameo of France from the first century CE. Augustus is here being brought up to the gods at the top of the scene.

Ovid died in Tomis in 17 or 18 CE, and by a quirk of fate his banishment from the city of Rome wasn’t formally revoked until 2017.